School Bell,” Erica Joy

August 13, 2019; New York Times

When Morehouse College alumnus Robert Smith announced that he would pay off all the student loan debt for Morehouse’s Class of 2019, he told them, “You great Morehouse men are bound only by the limits of your own conviction and creativity.” But students and observers were quick to point out that for the millions of students who weren’t lucky enough to be in that crowd, Smith’s statement just isn’t true. They’re bound by tens of thousands of dollars in student debt that will put enormous pressure on their choices and opportunities.

Morehouse responded by launching the Student Success Program (SSP). SSP will raise money to pay off Morehouse students’ debts and research how debt burdens impact the careers and choices of their alumni.

David A. Thomas, president of Morehouse College, said, “The Morehouse College Student Success Program will provide students with a liberating gift that will wipe away or greatly reduce their student loans, allowing them to pursue their dreams and lead lives of leadership and service immediately after graduation.”

The initiative will raise money from philanthropists and corporate partners, according to the college website. No details have yet been released about how the debt will be repaid, limits on the types of debt, graduation requirements, or other details.

As many have pointed out, nationally, the national student debt burden is about $1.6 trillion. That burden is disproportionately borne by students of color, like those at Morehouse, the nation’s oldest HBCU. Black students carry more debt than white students, and default on their loans about three times as often, which many scholars attribute to the racial wealth gap. Federal initiatives aimed at increasing wealth and student aid at HBCUs will not come fast enough to help students graduating in the next couple of years.

There can be no doubt about the good intentions and deep necessity of initiatives like SSP. Families of color struggle to build wealth in the US, thanks to decades of discriminatory policies in all areas of government. Though college education is often touted as the magic ticket to middle class success (it’s not that simple), without family wealth, the cost can drive young people down the economic ladder. That’s why “free college” plans have proliferated among presidential hopefuls: wiping out student debt is one of the most obvious ways this country could help its struggling families.

But like pushing college as the ticket to wealth, the glow around SSP starts to fade a bit if we consider the particulars. For one thing, lots of student debt is owned by private entities like banks—about $120 billion, according to nerdwallet. So, when they pay off debt, will these philanthropists participating in SSP be making donations to banks, or to huge financial entities like Sallie Mae? That seems like a hard sell.

Might it make more sense to engage donors directly to the university to cover more of its costs? Student debt is a direct product of high tuition, and Morehouse’s student aid has dropped over the past decade, even as tuition has risen. University funding would cut out the “middlemen,” and would connect with ongoing initiatives—though again, we run into the issue of protracted campaigns that don’t help students struggling now.

This solution, whatever questions it raises, reminds us of other areas in which federal inaction has driven people burdened by debt to seek private, often temporary, solutions. Think of all the medical costs covered by crowdfunding campaigns on platforms GoFundMe. Crowdfunding medical debt has gotten so common that a new nonprofit, RIP Medical Debt, formed to facilitate donations. Cyndi Suarez noted two years ago that local governments turned to crowdsourcing to finance public services like legal defense. Universities themselves have turned to crowdfunding as a way to engage young alumni.

SSP is not, of course, crowdfunding; it’s a university philanthropic initiative that will likely engage big donors in a strategic way. But SSP and crowdfunding spring from the same well: there’s a financial burden crippling people’s livelihoods, and the government is unwilling or unable to deal with it well or quickly enough.

Again, we should not overlook the enormous positive potential of SSP. Michael L. Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund, said, “Morehouse’s program to provide debt relief to new graduates is a fund-raising opportunity that should be studied and duplicated nationally.”

When he made his donation, Smith challenged Morehouse graduates to “pay it forward.” We hope SSP and its copycats will enable more students to do just that.—Erin Rubin