Historically black colleges and universities have stood at the epicenter of postsecondary education. These institutions have created a space where black students can find their place in the world — something that predominantly white institutions have trouble fully committing to.
This is why, the Atlanta University Center Consortium (AUCC) — inclusive of Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, Morehouse School of Medicine, and Spelman College — is crucial for generations of black students. Within this historic community, black bodies and minds are educated, fashioned, and nurtured at the nation’s only HBCU consortium.
Within this consortium lives Morehouse College, an institution specifically interested in the growth of black men. Founded in 1867 in the basement of Springfield Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga., by the Rev. William Jefferson White, Morehouse College has stood as the pinnacle institution for black men in America. The historically black, all male college’s students and alumni are known as “Morehouse Men” and their accomplishments, impact, and prestige extend far beyond the boundaries of its campus.
And while the accomplishments in Morehouse are many, the financial load that many students will bear post-graduation sometimes dilutes the success obtained while on campus.
This is why billionaire Robert F. Smith’s generous act at Morehouse’s commencement this week was so transformational and impactful.
Robert F. Smith, the black multi-billionaire founder of a private equity firm called Vista Equity Partners, stood before the 396 graduates as one of the commencement speakers. As he neared the close of his address, he said to the graduates:
“On behalf of the eight generations of my family who have been in this country. We’re going to put a little fuel in your bus. This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”
The gift is estimated at nearly $40 million, making it the largest gift granted to Morehouse and the single largest gift ever provided to eliminate student debt in the United States.
Smith’s gift communicates his authentic appreciation for HBCUs and his belief in the potential of young, black men graduating from Morehouse. The brothers of Morehouse will now be able to chart new paths and pursue a destiny free of a load far too heavy for one to carry.
While we should all celebrate Smith’s generosity and be overjoyed for the 2019 graduating class of Morehouse, it should also deeply concern us that nearly 400 college students amassed that amount of debt just to pay for their education.
Whether through public, private, or subsidized loans, this is a burden that should not be carried by students. I can’t help but think about my own college debt and that of countless other black, brown, and minority undergraduate and graduate students who are praying for relief.
The pursuit of education is so many people’s American dream. But doing it at the sake of losing one’s potential future earnings and obtaining their dreams defeats the purpose of pursuing an education. This is magnified as African-American students are within an education system that aids and merits those with wealth and access, while penalizing those of varied socioeconomic backgrounds and less than celebratory academic achievements. This raises the importance of HBCUs, but the cost and sacrifice must be confronted and curtailed.
The student debt crisis in America is currently at its worst, making it more difficult for minorities, specifically African Americans, to attend four year colleges — especially private institutions as Morehouse College. It is estimated that the average full-time tuition at Morehouse was $25,368 in the latest academic year. But with other expenses like room and board, books, and fees, the total can be above $48,000.
Research shows that African-American students take out substantially larger amounts of loans, private and public, to aid in their pursuit of a college degree. This contributes to the compounding amount of debt black students incur, widening the wealth gap — a gap that’ll seemingly never be closed until the wealthiest in our society not only willingly partake in acts like Mr. Smith, but are commanded to do so regardless of their tax bracket or income.
The increasing cost of living in Atlanta, income inequality, institutionalized racism, and the noticeable wealth gap between black and white students adds even more mental, physical, and financial stress to the already astronomical amount of money that students are asked to pay.
Yes, education is an investment, but how long does one have to stay in the red before they reap their dividends?
The skyrocketing costs of tuition and expenses should not lead to students turning RVs into apartments, substituting meal plans for books, or working two to three jobs just to make ends meet while Sallie Mae leaves them in an inevitable chokehold of debt and poverty.
We must make it so gifts like Smith’s are unnecessary. For black, brown, and minority students to have a shot at education, we must equal the playing field so they have the right opportunities to excel. We have to reimagine, reinvent, and revitalize education, making it accessible and worthwhile for all. Money cannot determine how much you can learn.