Vista Titan Robert F. Smith Plans to Ease Student Loan Debt for HBCU Students with the Student Freedom Initiative

Robert F. Smith | Student Freedom Initiative
January 9, 2021

By: N.Reid

While Americans plead for student loan relief and Democrats in Congress urge President Joe Biden to forgive $50,000 in student loan debt, billionaire Robert F. Smith continues to put his own plans in motion.

The Colorado native has made it his mission to help ease the loan burden that disproportionately affects Black students. During a May 2019 commencement speech at Morehouse College, Smith, the founder and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, made headlines when he pledged to pay off the student loans of roughly 400 Morehouse graduating seniors.

The graduates, and those in attendance, erupted in cheers and a roaring applause. Little did they know Smith still had more blessings to distribute. Months after the graduation ceremony, he extended his altruism by promising to pay the educational debt incurred by the students’ parents, as well, bringing his total gift amount to a whopping $34 million, according to Business Insider.

Smith has changed numerous lives with his unparalleled generosity, but the billionaire philanthropist is more than aware that student loan forgiveness is a problem that is intricately complicated. “There are some folks that have college debt for 20 years, and if you forgive the past, what about the future?” he told CNBC in Jan. 2020.

In an effort to put his efforts into overdrive, Smith started a brand new initiative. The meticulously thorough billionaire propelled his vision into what is now known as the Student Freedom Initiative (SFI). On his personal website, he describes the non-profit organization as a means to “remove some of the steep and often prohibitive barriers to higher ed that students of color often face.”

Qualified junior and senior Morehouse students in STEM majors are eligible for a flexible, low-risk alternative to high-rate, fixed-payment private loans and Parent PLUS loans. On average, the SFI expects to offer $32,000 per student, which the student will be required to repay after graduation based on their income. Participation in the SFI program will also connect students with internships and mentorships that will pave the way to high-paying jobs post graduation.

As usual, Smith’s charitableness doesn’t end there. In addition to Morehouse, the program will also be available at Claflin University, Clark Atlanta University, Florida A&M University, Hampton University, Prairie View A&M University, Tougaloo College, Tuskegee University and Xavier University of Louisiana, according to Smith’s website.

EdSurge reports the SFI will include 5,000 new students each year. It will launch with a pair of $50 million grants — one from Smith, and the other from the Fund II Foundation, a charitable organization that lists Smith as the founding director and president.

With a goal of raising $500 million by October 2021 to make the organization “self-sustaining,” Smith and his partners, Michael Lomax, Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Jain Family Institute, and the Education Finance Institute, are well on their way to alleviating the intense financial burden that plagues countless black students and their families.

Student loan debt has snowballed into a $1.6 trillion crisis. According to a 2006 report published by the U.S. Department of Education, black graduates are more likely to take on student debt. In addition, a 2016 comprehensive study by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth matched up data on student loan delinquencies by zip code. Combined with zip code demographics, it was discovered that student loan delinquencies are more concentrated in black and Latino communities.

Smith’s kindness and proactive measure also comes at the most opportune moment. Many are still reeling from the 2020 economic downturn brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. Although COVID-19 emergency relief flexibility has been extended through Sept. 30, 2021 through the Department of Education Office of Federal Student Aid, this is simply a bandage that doesn’t address the larger issue.

This is why Smith’s contributions are so impactful. With him at the helm of tackling a problematic student loan system that has wreaked havoc on black graduates for decades, the future finally appears brighter. Smith will continue to lead the way for so many, while holding firm to the title as one of the most altruistic figures this world has seen. His insurmountable contributions will support many generations of students to come and enrich black communities in ways that once seemed unimaginable.