Our Approach Is Holistic

How it Works

How it Works

We provide freedom in professional and life choices for juniors and seniors majoring in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) at HBCUs.  In close collaboration with participating institutions and strategic partners, we provide an income contingent alternative to high cost student loans, internships, mentoring/tutoring, and targeted capacity building. Our 5-year goal is a self-funded program to all STEM juniors and seniors at all HBCUs

The SFI Model

Leveraging hundreds of millions of dollars of donated permanent donate capital and additional funding sources, the Student Freedom Initiative remains anchored in our three core values and sustains 5,000 new students each year, enabling better outcomes. We partner with participating schools and like-minded organizations to provide access to student success services and targeted capacity building.

The Outcomes

With inputs from stakeholders, we developed outcomes aligned with our mission:

  1. Liberate students to make professional and life choices
  2. Increase African-American economic mobility via STEM
  3. Provide more favorable terms and flexibility
  4. Institutionalize a scalable platform to eventually support all students at MSIs
  5. Enable HBCU digital transformation & reduction in the digital divide
  6. Provide transformative model for policy, researchers, and student advocates
The SFI Model
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What is the Student Freedom Initiative?

The Student Freedom Initiative is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide a catalyst for freedom in professional and life choices for students attending Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs).


What does the Student Freedom Initiative do?

Beginning in 2021, the Student Freedom Initiative is launching a program that will offer eligible students at participating colleges and universities the option of having a portion of their educational expenses funded under an income-contingent funding arrangement known as a “Student Freedom Agreement,” which can serve as an alternative to high cost, fixed payment debt obligations. The program will also provide holistic support to students — including by providing access to internships, tutoring, mentoring and other educational and career support resources — as well as capacity building support for participating schools.

The Initiative’s efforts will initially be focused on junior and senior STEM majors at participating Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), though we hope to expand in the future.


Why was the Student Freedom Initiative created? How is it unique?

The Student Freedom Initiative was created to address the disproportionate student loan debt burden faced by all too many students of color. Structured as a “pay it forward” program, donations and payments made by participating students will enable the Initiative to operate as a self-sustaining program that will benefit future generations of students and their families. Our program is designed so that every $10 million invested in the program will cover 100 new students at MSIs every year, forever.

In addition, our program is holistic and is designed to be student-centric both in its terms and how it is administered. Our support services aim to help better prepare and position students for a limitless future, and our income-contingent funding arrangement liberates students to make career and life choices without being weighed down by burdensome fixed student loan payments, while also protecting them from the unfortunate turns that life sometimes takes. Our program also enables students to give back to their communities and support the schools they graduate from in ways that otherwise may not be possible.


Who funds the Student Freedom Initiative?

As a nonprofit public charity, we have raised a significant amount of donated funding that supports our efforts. Among other donations, the Initiative’s initial funding includes a $50 million personal gift from Robert F. Smith — philanthropist and Founder, Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners — and a $50 million gift from the Fund II Foundation — a charitable organization committed to advancing social change, of which Mr. Smith is founding director.

In addition, all funds received from students under our Student Freedom Agreements will be recycled back into our program, and we will use these funds to give future students the same opportunities.


What is a Student Freedom Agreement? How does it work?

Under our Student Freedom Agreement, the Student Freedom Initiative will provide funds to pay for a portion of an eligible student’s educational expenses. In return, the student agrees to make monthly payments to the Initiative in the future that are based on what they earn after leaving college.

As a program based in equity and community, the basic terms of the Student Freedom Agreement are the same across all participating schools and students. After college, participating students would generally pay the Initiative an amount equal to 2.5% of their income for every $10,000 in funding received from us, except that participants don't owe us anything in years where they make less than a minimum amount — currently $30,000 per year. These payments are made monthly for a maximum of 20 years, and unlike fixed debt obligations, they rise and fall with a participant’s earnings. In addition to the “downside protection” provided by the income-contingent nature of the payments, there is also a cap on how much a participant is required to pay, which provides protection for those that are high-earners. This payment cap is designed to make sure the overall cost of a Student Freedom Agreement remains lower than the cost of a Parent PLUS loan (paid over the same time period).

The payment obligation ends after a maximum of 20 years, even if the participant has paid less than the amount received or nothing at all.

The student-centric terms of our Student Freedom Agreements also offer additional protections for participants, including, for example:

  • Obligation terminates on bankruptcy, total permanent disability, or death.
  • Participants can elect to defer up to 12 monthly payments for any reason, without the need to demonstrate hardship.
  • Participants can make voluntary contributions to their alma maters.
  • Participants have a strong reason to “do what’s right” in making their payments, because the funds go to support future generations of students.

Additional information on the terms of the Student Freedom Agreement will be made available over the coming months. Please check back with us soon!


Who is eligible to receive a Student Freedom Agreement?

To be eligible to receive funding under a Student Freedom Agreement, a student must be a U.S. citizen or have a valid Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) (or acceptable state alternative), and meet the following other application criteria:

  • Enrolled full-time at a participating four-year college or university*
  • Rising junior or senior (by credit hours)
  • Majoring in an approved science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degree-seeking program
  • Maintain Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) toward completion of the eligible degree program, as defined by the student’s school for financial aid purposes

Additional information on the application process will be made available over the coming months. Please check back with us soon!

*Exception available if less than full-time coursework is required for degree completion in final year.


How much funding is available with a Student Freedom Agreement?

The Student Freedom Agreement should be considered just one part of a student’s overall financial aid package. It is not designed to replace any state or institutional aid, or any federal grants, work-study, or Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized loans. Instead, a Student Freedom Agreement is available to cover a student’s remaining educational expenses after those other aid sources are taken into account and is offered as an alternative to private student loans and Parent PLUS loans.

The cap on funding for each student is currently $20,000 per academic year and $40,000 total. And as with Parent PLUS loans and most private student loans, the total amount of funding received, including under the Student Freedom Agreement, cannot exceed the total “cost of attendance,” as defined by each school’s financial aid office.


When will the Student Freedom Agreement be available?

It is expected that eligible students at participating schools will be able to receive funding under our Student Freedom Agreements beginning with the fall 2021 semester.

The Student Freedom Initiative intends to launch a portal that will allow students to check their eligibility and indicate their interest in early 2021, with applications being available before the end of June 2021. Please check back with us soon for more information!


What majors are eligible for a Student Freedom Agreement?

The eligible majors currently include certain majors associated with select science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, as identified by the National Science Foundation. Each participating school has identified the qualifying majors that it offers.

Please refer to the schools page to find out if your major is eligible. Depending on circumstances, the eligible majors may be expanded in the future.


What are the participating schools?

The following HBCUs have agreed to participate in the Student Freedom Initiative for the 2021–2022 academic year:

  • Claflin University (Orangeburg, SC)
  • Clark Atlanta University (Atlanta, GA)
  • Florida A&M University (Tallahassee, FL)
  • Hampton University (Hampton, VA)
  • Morehouse College (Atlanta, GA)
  • Prairie View A&M University (Prairie View, TX)
  • Tougaloo College (Tougaloo, MS)
  • Tuskegee University (Tuskegee, AL)
  • Xavier University of Louisiana (New Orleans, LA)

Depending on circumstances and interest of other HBCUs and MSIs with eligible majors, we hope to add other schools in the future.

Please refer to the schools page for more information.