The Student Freedom Initiative recently announced its official launch for the Fall 2021 semester across campuses of the initiative’s initial cohort of nine Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The initiative has begun dispersing funds through their Student Freedom Agreements to eligible applicants attending schools within its initial cohort, and it has begun the process of upgrading mission-critical technology infrastructure at these institutions.
Initial participating institutions include Claflin University, Clark Atlanta University, Florida A&M University, Hampton University, Morehouse College, Prairie View A&M University, Tougaloo College, Tuskegee University and Xavier University of Louisiana.
The Student Freedom Initiative provides science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors at HBCUs with opportunities to receive income-contingent funding in lieu of traditional college loans that have long wreaked havoc on their financial futures. These income-contingent agreements (“Student Freedom Agreements”) are based on a ‘pay it forward’ concept, meaning payments are only made when the individual is working. HBCU students have traditionally been more likely than non-HBCU students to turn to Parent PLUS or private loans for additional funding to cover remaining costs for their education. On average, 63% of students at HBCUs rely on Parent Plus loans. The resulting default rate is five times as high in the Black community when compared to their white counterparts, and the average debt is twice as high in the Black community as long as four years after graduation. This Initiative was designed with and for HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions.
Inspired by the 2019 gift by Robert F. Smith to Morehouse College graduates, the Student Freedom Initiative aims to alleviate some of the longstanding financial burdens Black students face, disproportionate to their white counterparts. On average, Black students who graduate with bachelor’s degrees accrue $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. This gap only widens across the gender divide, with Black women carrying roughly 20% more student debt than white women, owing an estimate $41,466 in undergraduate loans compared to the $33,851 white women owe. By addressing the unequal burden faced by these students, this Initiative seeks to combat the racial wealth gap and provide the next generation of Black thinkers the ability to create generational wealth and achieve social mobility.
“Through the Student Freedom Initiative, we hope to give Black students access to the education they need to move forward in this digital economy without the burden of student loan debt stopping them from realizing their fullest potential,” said Robert F. Smith, Chairman of the Student Freedom Initiative. “While our community continues to face inequities that too often bar young students of color from accessing quality higher education, the Student Freedom Initiative aims to empower our students with the tools they need to control their financial futures.”
“The Student Freedom Agreement process was straightforward, even easier than FAFSA. It clearly laid out all the information of what the agreement was and wasn’t. It is literally freeing me from taking out more costly loans or spending all my time working to make ends meet. It’s truly a breath of fresh air,” said Deon Shaffer, an Aerospace Science Engineering major at Tuskegee University.
“The Student Freedom Agreement is beneficial during a time when people are hard-hit by the economy,” added Emily London-Jones, Former Director of Student Financial Aid and Scholarships at Xavier University of Louisiana. “Parents are not making enough money to pay down debts without facing the long, drawn-out forbearance penalties they face with the Parent PLUS loans. So, the students are now taking on that responsibility, and that’s a great thing.”
“We are taking a holistic approach to support and empower our students,” notes Mark Brown, Executive Director of the Student Freedom Initiative. “Not only are we providing our students financing to pursue their education, but the Student Freedom Initiative is also providing them with career development opportunities established through partnerships with Fortune 100 companies. Eligible students receive paid internship opportunities (what we call immersive work experiences) during their college careers to prepare them for post-graduate life. We’re betting on them that given the right investment, these students will go out and do well.”
Additionally, with the help of tech partners including Cisco and AVC Technologies, the Student Freedom Initiative is also visiting HBCU campuses throughout the 2021-22 academic year to provide free critical technology infrastructure upgrades. The Initiative and its partners will work directly with HBCUs to identify gaps between their existing infrastructure and the requirements identified by the Department of Education Federal Student Aid (FSA) program and install the necessary solutions to address these gaps and become cybersecure. To date, over 22 HBCUs have signed agreements to achieve Campus Cyber Security through infrastructure upgrades, with sign-ups continuing every day.
Together with Cisco’s contribution of $150 million, the Student Freedom Initiative has received over $250 million in pledges, including a generous contribution from the Walmart Foundation as part of its first round of grants for The Walmart.org Center for Racial Equity, and support from the United Negro College Fund. In addition, the program has been acknowledged and supported by the Business Roundtable's Racial Equity & Justice Subcommittee on Education.
To learn more, visit www.StudentFreedomInitiative.org or @StuFreedomOrg on Twitter.
About Student Freedom Initiative:
The Student Freedom Initiative (SFI), is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring freedom in professional and life choices for junior and senior students pursuing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees. Initially focused on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), SFI is student-centered, evidence-based, and holistic, featuring four transformative components: including an income contingent alternative to fixed payment obligations used to finance college, internships, mentoring, tutoring, and other student services, as well as targeted HBCU capacity building. SFI collaborates with community-based organizations, businesses and governmental entities through public-private partnerships to make sustainable, systemic changes to support the entire HBCU ecosystem.