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'It Doesn't Need To End Here': Historically Black College Cancels Debt Owed By Students

Graduates line up before the start of commencement. (Seth Wenig/AP)
Graduates line up before the start of commencement. (Seth Wenig/AP)

 Graduating students from Wilberforce University in Ohio received a surprise during their commencement ceremony: Most of their student debt was being erased.

The total debt forgiveness amounted to $375,000 for both 2020 and 2021 college graduates.

“The Wilberforce University Board of Trustees has authorized me to forgive any debt,” President Elfred Anthony Pinkard announced, as students began to cheer.

While Pinkard notes he didn’t have the authority or the resources to forgive all the debt owed to the banks or federal government, he says students and their families appreciated the little the school could do.

Organizations, such as the Jack and Jill Foundation, offering to step in and help were key to forgiving the debt, he says. The school is also a member of the United Negro College Fund, which is made up of 37 historically Black colleges and universities that help students receive financial aid.

Black students borrow more in student loans compared to white students. The gap is something that Pinkard is familiar with.

Out of the Wilberforce student body, 95% of students qualify for federal Pell Grants, Pinkard says, which indicates to him that they come from low-income homes that qualify them for financial aid assistance.

“One part of it is forgiving the debt,” he says. “Of course, the second part of it is for a student to use that forgiveness in a way that gives them a little bit more room as they are beginning their lives after Wilberforce and other undergraduate institutions.”

Cleopatra Melton was one of the students who received the surprising graduation gift. She was watching her graduation at home and remembers dancing and crying when she learned her student debts would be forgiven.

“I want to thank everyone at Wilberforce because it wasn’t for the faint of heart. It was a lot of trials and tribulations, ups and downs, long nights, early mornings,” Melton says. “But we did it.”

Melton isn’t a traditional student. She’s in her mid-40s and a single mother to two children. She received a Bachelor of Science in organizational management. Having come from a junior college before Wilberforce, Melton was already in debt.

It was Melton’s family that helped motivate her throughout her higher education. Her children encouraged her to get her bachelor’s after she received her associate’s. She credits her parents and ancestors for pushing her to keep going.

“You just can’t give up because you never know who you’re impacting,” she says. “You know, our children look for us for all kinds of guidance.”

Her plans moving forward include graduating with a master’s degree. Melton says that she wants to return to Wilberforce as a teacher, but was told she needed her master’s first.

Although she hasn’t settled on a school yet, she’s determined to come back.

“I want to come back and pay it forward to girls like myself who started so young with their children. I want to look in their eyes and tell them if I can do it, at my age, it’s never too late,” she says.

University President Pinkard doesn’t want to over promise on student debt being forgiven again, noting it would be irresponsible to do that. Still, he hopes other philanthropists will come forward, contribute to the school and reopen up the opportunity.

It’s a statement Melton agrees with.

“I just pray that one day that this is not the exception, but the standard across the board,” she says. “So I’m glad that Wilberforce was able to start the conversation, but it doesn’t need to end here.”


Marcelle Hutchins produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Jill Ryan. Jeannette Muhammad adapted this interview for the web.

 

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.