Robert F. Smith remembers a very specific experience growing up:
“One of my good friends, I remember one of the teachers in high school told him that he should actually go become a bricklayer. He should, you know—[become] either a bricklayer or a carpenter. Now, this guy now has a PhD in biology just to give you a sense, right?”
This kind of experience is all too common, even today. Across the board, Black students are more likely to be discouraged from pursuing rigorous academic courses, and more likely to be subject to disciplinary measures like suspension and detention. Children of color, particularly Black and Latino children, are less likely to have access to high-quality early childhood education.
Smith believes that equalizing funding for schools is an important first step to achieving equality in America, he told Yahoo! News “[when] one part of the community has ten times as much money spent on them as the other, you’re going to get disparities in education and opportunity. And I think we need to think about how you equalize that from K through 12.”
Racial disparities in education extend well beyond K-12 and also impact Black students pursuing higher education. Black college students are forced to borrow more in student loans than students of other races and ethnicities. More than 85% of Black students borrow federal loans to attend four-year colleges, compared to 59.9% of their white peers.
Smith is working to address these disparities on a personal and systemic level. In May 2019, he pledged to pay off the student loan debt for every graduate of Morehouse College, a historically-Black college. This year, Smith went further by launching a new non-profit, The Student Freedom Initiative, which aims to address the disproportionate burden of student loan debt on Black students. The nonprofit organization is set to launch in 2021 at up to 11 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and will offer flexible, lower-risk student loan options to junior and seniors studying science, technology, engineering, or mathematics.
Without a structural overhaul of how we support Black students, businesses, and communities, we are not investing in Black success. However, Robert F. Smith is optimistic that leaders are rising to this challenge. He says, “I’ve seen more business leaders now actually waking up to this and actually saying, I have to do something about it.”