Student loan debt is one of the biggest challenges facing young people today, and it’s disproportionately impacting Black students who are not only more likely to have to take on student loans, but, on average, owe more than $7,000 more than their white peers after receiving a bachelor’s degree. This burden is hindering Black students’ ability to take career risks after graduation, pursue further educational opportunities, and it also contributes to the growing racial wealth gap in this country.
To help tackle this issue, Robert F. Smith launched a new non-profit this week — The Student Freedom Initiative — focused on helping ease the burden of student loan debt for students of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). The program is launching with a $50 million grant from Fund II Foundation, which Smith is the founding director and president.
“You think about these students graduating and then plowing so much of their wealth opportunity into supporting this student debt, that’s a travesty in and of itself,” Smith said during a TIME100 Talks discussion.
The program will launch this fall at up to 11 HBCUs, and it expects to offer 5,000 juniors and seniors who are studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) with a flexible alternative to high-interest private student loans. The loans will be low-interest and their payment after graduation will be based on the student’s income.
In the long run, Smith’s goal is to make the program self-sustaining through investments and graduates’ repayments and grow the initiative to reach more than 100 HBCUs and minority serving institutions.
Read more about the Student Freedom Initiative in TIME.