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When Annissa Young, a junior at Trinity Washington University, saw an email from the institution on her phone with the subject line "Financial planning with a fresh start," she didn’t think much of it. She thought maybe the private institution in Washington, D.C., was announcing a new scholarship program. She definitely didn’t expect what the message actually said -- that the university would wipe out her debt to the institution.

Young took a screenshot of the email, which she received earlier this month, and sent it to her father, mother, aunt and boyfriend.

“I was like, ‘Oh my god, oh my god, is this what I think it is?’”

The university's decision to pay off the balances of nearly 400 students -- 40 percent of the more than 1,000 full-time undergraduates at the college -- was publicly announced Wednesday. Approximately $4,583 on average will be wiped from each student's account, a total of $1.8 million. Funding for the initiative comes from the American Rescue Plan, the third round of federal COVID-19 relief funds distributed to colleges and universities during the pandemic, and private benefactors.

Trinity Washington received $5.6 million from the COVID-19 relief plan in May, half for direct student aid and half for institutional expenses. Pat McGuire, president of the university, said campus leaders wanted to use the money to give students “a clean slate to start the fall 2021 school year.”

“That’ll help them buy books and pay other expenses and really help them go into the fall semester in good style,” she said.

The initiative comes after a tumultuous academic year when the pandemic forced campuses to stay closed, shifted courses online and put new financial strains on students. The police killing of George Floyd and the nationwide protests that followed prompted a new focus on racial and economic inequities in higher ed and efforts to alleviate it.

Trinity Washington serves high numbers of low-income students, who were hit particularly hard by the public health crisis and economic downturn as students and their family members lost jobs and earnings. The median family income of full-time Trinity undergraduates is about $25,000, and about 80 percent are eligible for the federal Pell Grant.

During the pandemic, Trinity Washington suspended its usual policy prohibiting students from registering for classes if they have an outstanding balance of $4,000 or more. University administrators were already re-evaluating the policy before the pandemic, however, and after doing an analysis of the policy, they found that several thousand students had dropped out over about a decade because of unpaid balances, McGuire noted.

“Having a balance on the account tells us they’re struggling,” McGuire said. “These are not students who just willfully don’t pay. They literally cannot pay. Many have lost jobs or have had family members lose jobs. They’re trying to support their families, and the pandemic has been devastating for them. They’ve been so grateful. The thought that they can come back to school and not worry about their bills gives them chills.”

Young said her father, who works as a truck driver, had his hours reduced during the pandemic, which made it harder to afford her tuition payments.

“He was so grateful” to hear about the debt cancellation, she said, and his relief made her teary-eyed.

“Now we’re getting back on our feet and learning about this,” she said. “It really helped me and my family.”

McGuire said the initiative is not only meant to be a leg up for low-income students but part of the university’s racial justice mission. Trinity Washington, a historic women's undergraduate college with co-ed professional schools, is the only university in D.C., and one of a few across the country, that qualifies as both a predominantly Black and Hispanic-serving institution. “We believe deeply that we must be champions for women of color, students of color, to get into and complete college degrees successfully,” she said. “It all relates to racial equity and justice.”

Colleges and universities across the country have recently been using COVID-19 relief funds and gifts from wealthy philanthropists to relieve student debt. Quinsigamond Community College in Massachusetts announced in June that it would clear the unpaid balances of students enrolled during the pandemic with $2.5 million from coronavirus relief funds.

“By choosing to invest in our students by removing this barrier, we are investing in our community and strengthening our workforce,” Luis G. Pedraja, president of Quinsigamond, said then. “We are leveling the playing field for our students so that they can succeed. This enables our students to realize a better future for themselves and their families, and in doing so, increases our community’s economic prosperity.”

A growing number of historically Black institutions have also moved to erase their students' debt, including Wilberforce University in Ohio, Shaw University and Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, Delaware State University, and many others.

Lodriguez Murray, senior vice president of public policy and government affairs at the United Negro College Fund, a membership organization that represents private HBCUs, has noted that this trend of debt relief efforts is only possible because of the “once-in-a-century” influx of federal relief funding during the pandemic.

Karen McCarthy, director of policy analysis at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, pointed out that the American Rescue Plan was the first round of COVID-19 relief funding that allowed institutions to use funds to relieve student debt, which explains the flurry of debt relief efforts this summer.

“I think it’s wonderful that especially the underresourced institutions are using their institutional funds in this way, because there are a lot of other ways they could spend those … dollars,” she said. “It’s a great sign of the way that they’re prioritizing students and seeing the impact of the pandemic on their students and understanding that these unpaid balances can be a barrier to re-enrollment for their students.”

McGuire believes the federal funds represent a “change moment” for higher education funding, particularly for underresourced institutions like Trinity Washington. Smaller minority-serving institutions and community colleges have traditionally lacked the “creative capital” to take on these kinds of large-scale initiatives to ease students’ financial burdens.

The infusion of federal stimulus dollars has “changed the whole idea of how money flows through higher ed to do the most common good, the most good for the most people who need it the most,” she said.

McGuire said she hopes policy makers will learn from this moment and recognize over time how additional financial support to institutions can increase college persistence and completion rates among low-income students and students of color. She wants to see federal support for low-income students grow, whether that means doubling the maximum Pell Grant, covering two years of community college tuition or coming up with other policy solutions.

“To me, the mission-centered issue is how do I keep my students in school and get them to become successful professionals, the first in their families to graduate,” she said. “That should be in the interest of every policy maker and private philanthropist to make that happen.”

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