Morehouse students just got a stunning graduation gift. What can help more students of color?

Morehouse students just got a stunning graduation gift. What can help more students of color?

November 28, 2019 0 By Stanley Isaacs


JUDY WOODRUFF: The growth in student debt
for students now in college has finally started slowing down. But, for many, the burden remains high, since
debt had been soaring for over two decades. Roughly two in three seniors who graduate
from public and private nonprofit colleges had an average debt of more than $28,000 in
2017. That compares with about $13,000 in 1996. The challenges of all that debt were cast
back into the national conversation this week by a surprising announcement. It’s all part of our special series Rethinking
College. And Amna Nawaz is here with more. Hi. AMNA NAWAZ: Hey, Judy. You remember that billionaire investor and
philanthropist Robert F. Smith. He stunned the graduating class of Morehouse
College during his commencement address on Sunday. He promised to eliminate the student debt
of all 396 members of the class of 2019. But his generous pledge also highlighted the
distinct wealth gap for recent African-American graduates. They carry nearly $7,500 more debt than their
white counterparts. Smith, who is the wealthiest African-American
in the U.S., said he intended his gift to help, but also to inspire. ROBERT F. SMITH, Philanthropist: We’re going
to put a little fuel in your bus. Now, I have got the alumni over there. And this is a challenge to you, alumni. This is my class, 2019. (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) ROBERT F. SMITH: And my family is making a
grant to eliminate their student loans. (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) AMNA NAWAZ: For a deeper look at that Morehouse
gift and some of the broader questions it raises, I’m joined by Mehrsa Baradaran. She’s professor at the University of Georgia
School of Law and author of “The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap.” And Scott Jaschik, the editor of Inside Higher
Ed. Welcome to you both. Mehrsa Baradaran, to you first. Big picture for the average student, what
is the impact of a gift like this? What does it change for them? MEHRSA BARADARAN, University of Georgia School
of Law: This is not just this — you know, their lives, but this will have intergenerational
effects. I mean, this will change their entire trajectory. Maybe they can go get a mortgage now. Maybe they can, you know, start their lives,
have children. That psychological debt load that they have
been carrying can be wiped out. And so they can then push their children out
into the world. So, for this group of, you know, 400 Morehouse
graduates who got their debt wiped out, I mean, they won the life lottery. And it really is — does show how effective
that, you know, student debt is in sort of, you know, determining your life outcomes. AMNA NAWAZ: The life lottery this one class
has won, it’s significant not just because of the way that Smith made the gift, but also
the fact that it’s at Morehouse. Right? It’s an HBCU. It’s a historically black college. Talk to me a little bit about the debt for
these students, as compared to the larger student debt landscape. SCOTT JASCHIK, Inside Higher Education: Sure. So, debt is a struggle for many graduates
of all races and ethnicities. But the reality is, a black student is less
likely than a white student to have had a family that could contribute a lot of money
to education. Now, my parents paid for my sisters and I
to go to expensive private colleges. Many black families love their children just
as much, but they don’t have the kind of money to set aside to do that. On average, there are — about 30 percent
of black students graduate with $100,000 in debt. That’s three times the level of a white student. These are very large numbers, and they influence
what they can do. AMNA NAWAZ: So, a gift like this is really
going to make a difference. But, Mehrsa, we heard there Robert Smith challenge
other alumni to do something similar, right? It’s a massive difference for these 400 students. But is this way of giving sustainable? Is this the answer? MEHRSA BARADARAN: No. I mean, I think we commend Robert Smith. It’s wonderful. It’s so generous of a billionaire to give
so generously of his wealth. But there just aren’t enough billionaires
to deal with this problem. I mean, we’re talking about two-thirds of
white students, 80-something percent of black students. This is a lot of debt. This is a structural problem. It’s a whole generation. And there aren’t enough billionaires who are
committed, capable and willing to do it. And, also, we shouldn’t — democracy shouldn’t
rely on the charity and the generosity of a few people to really solve systemic problems. So, we really, I think, do need to look at
this as a social problem. It’s not just the debt. It is all of the effects psychologically,
again, of life outcomes. It is a servicing of the debt. It is what they can and can’t do going forward. And so I think it’s really time to look forward
to policy changes that will help these students, this whole generation to deal with that debt. AMNA NAWAZ: Speaking of policies, I want to
mention some of the students who were not affected by this. This gift, we should point out, only applies
to the 396 students who graduated, many of whom were tweeting their thanks and celebrating
online. But there was one account I wanted to share. It was by a student named Jordan Long, who’s
22 years old. He was featured in The New York Times. He tweeted after learning about that gift. And he tweeted this: “I left Morehouse class
of 2019 to avoid debt. And this billionaire just paid the graduating
class’ debt off. Kill me,” he wrote. Clearly, a lot of regret there. But, Scott, it gets to the larger structural
issue, which is that there were students who knew there was going to be a lot of debt. That debt was crippling and didn’t even allow
them to graduate in the first place. SCOTT JASCHIK: Right. And you have to remember, next year’s class,
their debt isn’t paid for. Last year’s isn’t paid for. You have to look at policy questions. The value of the Pell Grant, the largest federal
effort to help low-income students, is not keeping up with the cost of college. State support for higher education is going
up in some states, not in others. Programs that help low-income students get
ahead are not adequately supported. That’s why you see all the talk about free
college. Many people feel the system right now just
is not working. AMNA NAWAZ: Mehrsa, we want to mention — of
course, we don’t want to undersell this incredible gift, the generosity behind what Robert Smith
did here. But I will go back to what you said earlier
in the conversation, which is that this will change their lives and the lives of many people
these students may come into contact with. At the same time, this is not just about student
debt. This is about larger inequalities in our society
right now. Put that into context for me. What do we need to do? MEHRSA BARADARAN: Yes. So white families have something like 12 times
the wealth of black families. And this is a result of past generations,
so, your father and your grandfather getting an FHA mortgage or a G.I. Bill, and having those costs and their debts
reduced by public programs. So they were able to get good jobs. They were able to build wealth. And then they were able to help you out, so
give you a place to stay, provide that buffer. And so a lot of black families don’t have
that. And due to the effects of segregation, they’re
also part of a social system that is low wealth. So they can’t reach out to aunts and uncles
and grandfathers and grandmothers to get that help either. In fact, a lot low-income students, especially
black and brown students, end up helping families while they’re in college, OK? So in the white wealthy world or the middle
class, that help comes down, right? So parents help their kids. But a lot of times, in low-income communities
of color, the kids are helping the parents just as much. And so this really allows for this generation
to help out. And you’re right. I mean, this is — we shouldn’t diminish the
absolute generosity of this gift. It was really quite stunning. AMNA NAWAZ: Stunning, indeed. A lot of people are still talking about it. Thank you to you both, Mehrsa Baradaran and
Scott Jaschik, for being here today. SCOTT JASCHIK: Thank you. MEHRSA BARADARAN: Thank you.