At commencement, HBCU wipes away $375,000 in debt

Wilberforce University's generosity brings students a welcome graduation gift of zero balances.

Two weeks ago, commencement speaker and billionaire investment firm founder Robert Smith said he would pay off all debt for 400 Morehouse College graduates – a sum said to be in the range of $40 million.

The stunning announcement was followed up last weekend by another from Wilberforce University president Elfred Pinkard, who said during commencement that the institution would be wiping away more than $375,000 debt for students enrolled in 2020 and 2021 at the Historically Black College and University.

“Because you have shown that you are capable of doing work under difficult circumstances, because you represent the best of your generation, we wish to give you a fresh start,” Pinkard said during the ceremony. “So therefore, the Wilberforce University board of trustees has authorized me to forgive any debt. Your accounts have been cleared and you don’t owe Wilberforce anything. Congratulations.”

That prompted a wild celebration in the Ohio university’s gymnasium for the 166 students who earned degrees in Clinical Rehabilitation Counseling, Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, and its adult education program.

“I couldn’t believe it when he said it,” graduate Rodman Allen said. “I know now God will be with me. Now I can use that money and invest it into my future.”

There was, however, a catch. Wilberforce was not eliminating all debt students had, just debt due to the university. That forced Pinkard to have to deliver this uncomfortable piece of news on Memorial Day:

“As a university community, we need to be very clear that what we have done is to forgive the debt that our students owe to Wilberforce University,” Pinkard said in a statement to the community. “We are able to do this through scholarships and other institutionally funded initiatives. However, we have neither the authority nor the resources to forgive student debt owed to any other source.”

Despite the correction, the elimination of hundreds of thousands of dollars in student debt was notably generous and groundbreaking coming directly from a university. Setting balances at zero means those students can move on during one of the most challenging times in American history without having to at least pay back fees and other monies owed to the institution.

“As these graduates begin their lives as responsible adults, we are honored to be able to give them a fresh start,” Pinkard said.

The debt forgiveness, Wilberforce said, was a result of institutional funding and scholarships from the United Negro College Fund, Inc., Jack and Jill, Inc., and others. During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and because of Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF) the university received through the CARES Act, Wilberforce students were still able to register for classes even if they were behind on payments.

That set the stage for a positive year for the university and for the graduating class. Looking ahead, there’s more positive news at Wilberforce, which announced last week it was returning to in-person learning for the fall and making accommodations for those who still want to learn virtually. Because it is not requiring vaccines, it is keeping alive all of its safety protocols and adhering to public health guidance.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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