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October 22, 2020

Black Billionaire Robert F. Smith to Donate $50 Million to Support STEM Students at HBCUs

Oct. 22, 2020

WASHINGTON–(BUSINESS WIRE)–The Student Freedom Initiative announced today a $50 million personal gift from Robert F. Smith, philanthropist and Founder, Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners. This gift matches the initial funding of $50 Million provided by the Fund II Foundation, announced in June 2020.

Student Freedom Initiative is a public charity whose mission is to serve as a catalyst for freedom in professional and life choices for students attending Minority Serving Institutions. The Initiative will offer a student and family centric income-contingent payment alternative to the crushing burden of high cost, fixed payment debt in the context of our commitment to a program that provides holistic support to students and capacity building support for participating institutions. Equally important, the Initiative offers paid internships in a student’s area of study, tutoring/mentorships, and targeted HBCU capacity building.

“Each year, thousands of black graduates from HBCUs across America enter the workforce with a crushing debt burden that stunts future decisions and prevents opportunities and choices,” said Robert F. Smith, who is also the Board Chair of the Student Freedom Initiative. “A college education should empower and prepare our next generation for a limitless future. The Student Freedom Initiative is a culmination of work that followed my gift to the Morehouse College Class of 2019. The $1.6 trillion student debt crisis in our country is a human rights crisis. The Initiative is purposefully built to redress historic economic and social inequities and to offer a sustainable, scalable platform to invest in the education of future Black leaders. I urge others to join this important cause so that together we can liberate the human spirit.”

With 65% of Black wealth consumed by the intolerable burden of student debt, the Initiative was initially established to create onramps to jobs of the 21st century. Following Smith’s historic gift to eliminate the student debt of all 2019 Morehouse College graduates and their parents, the team identified the systemic problems with the current student loan structure. With limited options, many students and their families have little choice but to turn to Parent PLUS loans and private loans that account for well more than half of the debt incurred to attend HBCUs.

“This is the only structure that we know of that has been built for HBCUs to support students at scale and that does not depend on the endowment of a university or funding by for-profit funders,” said Dr. Michael Lomax, CEO of UNCF and Board Member of the Initiative. “Robert F. Smith’s extraordinary philanthropy is a giant first step toward a self-sustaining pool of funds that we can invest in promising students, particularly those pursuing STEM careers.”

Additional Board Members include Robert F. Smith, Vista Equity Partners Founder, Chairman and CEO (Board Chair); Henry Louis Gates Jr., Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University; Linda Wilson, CEO of the Fund II Foundation; Bob Jain, Founder and Chairman of the Jain Family Institute and Co-Chief Investment Officer of Millennium Management; Jim Runcie. Education Finance Institute Co-founder and Executive Director; and Keith B. Shoates Executive Director of Student Freedom Initiative.

The Initiative will begin operations with 11 HBCUs that will be announced before the end of November. The program is intended to be made incrementally available to all qualifying STEM juniors and seniors at all HBCUs over the next five years, following the fall 2021 academic year.