He Got It Half Right

Robert F. Smith's generous gift to Morehouse College graduates was certainly important and groundbreaking, but many deserving students don't even make it to graduation, writes Elwood L. Robinson.

July 17, 2019
Istockphoto.com/Feodora Chiosea

In May, billionaire Robert F. Smith made a remarkable announcement. At the Morehouse College commencement, he proclaimed that he and his family would be paying off the student loans of all 396 members of the Class of 2019. The crowd erupted in cheers -- and rightfully so. The total gift, estimated to exceed $40 million, will allow graduates to begin their careers without student loan payments weighing them down. Some Morehouse graduates are reported to be as much as $100,000 in debt, which would take more than $750 a month in loan payments from their pockets for the next 20 years.

This gift was groundbreaking for Morehouse and other historically black colleges and universities. Most HBCUs, like other access institutions in this country, educate large numbers of lower-income and first-generation students but obtain just a fraction of the financial support that wealthy institutions do. In 2017, HBCUs received just two of the 462 gifts to colleges and universities that exceeded $1 million, according to Inside Philanthropy. Put another way, although HBCUs make up 3 percent of public and nonprofit higher education institutions receiving financial aid in the country, we received just 0.4 percent of the over $1 million gifts donated in 2017.

All that said, I suggest that, with his generous announcement, Smith was half right in his approach to providing support to financially need students.

Undoubtedly, the close to 400 men who benefit from Smith’s generosity will be able to do, see and experience many more things in their lives unburdened by student loan debt. They are the fortunate ones: the young men who were able to make their way to graduation through hard work and dedication. But thousands of other deserving students, would-be graduates, are forced to abandon their educations -- and sometimes just credits shy of completion -- due to financial challenges.

Many of our students at Winston-Salem State University, like those at other access institutions, are the first in their families to attend college. More than 60 percent receive Pell Grants, and 64 percent of last year’s incoming freshmen reported that their families earned less than $60,000 a year. Economically disadvantaged students do not have a safety net. Seemingly small expenses -- a flat tire, a fender bender, a stolen laptop -- can force a college student to drop out of school. In each of the last two years, about 500 of our students have had gaps between their available aid and their tuition bill -- gaps that forced many to discontinue their studies.

One solution to this problem is a gap scholarship program that gives students who find themselves in difficult financial situations grants to help them bridge the gap. Often, as little as a few hundred dollars means the difference between crossing the stage on graduation day and returning home with a dream denied. Indeed, a $40 million investment in gap scholarships would allow for the creation of an endowed fund that would have a cascading effect on tens of thousands of students.

At Winston-Salem State, we created such a fund. In our pilot program, we awarded 167 gap scholarships, with the result that as many as 165 of the students who had considered dropping out ended up completing their education.

The students at access schools are deserving of opportunity. They have found their way to a college or university that provides an experience that helps them build the leadership skills and confidence to go into the job market prepared and competitive. They learn in an environment that allows them to discover who they are and what they love in a space that embraces them and tells them there is no ceiling on their ambitions. They see hope for the future and an opportunity to create a life that fulfills them and sets future generations on a course for prosperity. It is a shame that so many run into obstacles that keep success at arm’s length.

I urge donors who want to support the next generation of scholars, leaders and entrepreneurs to consider funding gap scholarship programs at colleges and universities that offer access to unrepresented and financially needy students. And I suggest to my colleagues at HBCUs and other access institutions that they do the same with their donors. It would be a wise investment. HBCUs and other access institutions are moving people up the economic mobility ladder and having a positive impact on the wealth gap in America. We are places that truly change lives.


Elwood L. Robinson is the chancellor of Winston-Salem State University, a historically black constituent institution of the University of North Carolina.


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