This fall will mark not only the beginning of a new school year for millions of students, but the launch of Student Freedom Initiative, a nonprofit organization which was the brainchild of Robert F. Smith. Student Freedom Initiative will offer flexible, lower-risk alternatives to high-interest private student loans to college seniors and juniors studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) at its first cohort of 11 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
The initiative is currently operating with a $50 million donation from the Fund II Foundation, of which Smith is the founding director and President, and a $50 million donation from Smith himself. Other partners include Michael Lomax, CEO of the United Negro College Fund; Henry Louis Gates Jr., Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard; and the Jain Family Institute and the Education Finance Institute. The initiative has plans for further expansion, and it is aiming to raise $500 million by October 2021 and to enroll 5,000 students each year.
“We can graduate all STEM students from HBCUs in essence forever under this program. It becomes self-sustaining,” Smith said. “They support the next generation of students, and it gives them flexibility to actually drive back some of what I call their intellectual property — what they’ve learned in college and business — back into the communities in ways that matter.” Ultimately, Student Freedom Initiative hopes to expand its program to provide support for more than 100 HBCUs and other minority-serving organizations.
Black Students Face Rampant Inequity in Higher Education
Student Freedom Initiative’s work could not be more crucial. On their graduation day, data shows Black college students owe an average of $7,400 more than their white peers. After graduating, interest rates, graduate school costs, and other factors cause that disparity to grow even larger: and four years after graduation, Black students owe nearly $53,000 more than their white peers. Given that student loans can financially cripple a young person at the beginning of his or her career, this race-based disparity must be addressed.
It is also key to note that HBCUs need to receive greater investment and support. A 2016 study from the United Negro College Fund found that HBCUs often receive far fewer resources and endowments than other universities and colleges, which restricts their ability to provide scholarships and forces many students to seek loans. While this disadvantages all students attending HBCUs, it also bears a specific cost on Black students in STEM. HBCUs account for only 2% of higher learning institutions in the United States, but they are the primary incubator of Black students who graduate with STEM degrees. As such, programs like Student Freedom Initiative are important to provide key support for HBCUs and specifically for Black students in STEM.
Continuing the Fight for Equity in Higher Education
Student Freedom Initiative is taking an important step in the fight for racial equity at higher learning institutions by investing in HBCUs and in thousands of Black students. But Smith, who additionally pledged to clear 400 students’ debts at Morehouse College in 2019, says that this initiative should be one of many. He told TIME Magazine, “I want thousands of Robert Smiths out there who are actually looking to do some things in fields that are exciting to them and are giving back.”
Smith and Student Freedom Initiative are providing critical support to HBCUs and to Black students – a mission that can and must continue to grow to combat racial inequality in higher education. As students head back to classrooms this fall, organizations like Student Freedom Initiative are vital to the ongoing fight for equality.
Learn more here about Student Freedom Initiative and their work to support Black students in higher education.