Could Black Philanthropy Help Solve the Black Student Debt Crisis?

Left: Robert Smith. Right (clockwise from left): Beyonce Knowles-Carter, Jay-Z, LeBron James and Nicki Minaj. Reuters, USA Today

Article by Mako Fitts Ward. She is a Clinical Assistant Professor, African and African American Studies & Women and Gender Studies, School of Social Transformation, Arizona State University


When billionaire Robert E. Smith decided to pay off the student loans of the graduating class of 2019 at Morehouse College, he suggested that others follow his lead.

“Let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward, because we are enough to take care of our own community,” Smith declared in his commencement speech.

But is there even enough black private wealth in the United States to pay off all black student loan debt?

As a scholar in social transformation and African American studies, I’m intrigued by this question. It provides an opportunity to examine black wealth, higher education and the possibilities for alleviating debt, which in turn opens the door to new economic opportunities.

Black celebrities give to higher education

Smith’s gift is estimated to be worth US$40 million and will benefit 396 students.

That’s a lot of money, and he’s done it before. Before his gift to Morehouse, Smith donated $50 million to Cornell University, his alma mater, in part to support African American and female students at Cornell University’s College of Engineering.

Other black celebrities have also stepped up to fund education. Powerhouse couple Beyonce and Jay Z gave more than $1 million in scholarships to students who lived in cities they were touring in 2018.

Rapper Nicki Minaj gave 37 “Student of the Game” scholarships. LeBron James, through his foundation, promised to pay for 2,300 students to attend the University of Akron – at an estimated price tag of $100 million. Oprah Winfrey has donated more than $400 million to educational causes.

But with just five black billionaires in the United States – Smith, Winfrey, David Steward, Michael Jordan and Jay-Z – monumental gifts like the one that Smith made will likely be few and far between.

Is Smith’s claim that “we are enough to take care of our own community” true of all the black wealth in the U.S.?

Philanthropy among African Americans

A strong heritage of black philanthropy dates back to mutual aid societies of the 1700s and 1800s in which free blacks sought to help fellow blacks facing hardships or distress and, in later years, in need of education and job training.

Black charitable giving also arose from the black church and fraternal organizations throughout the 1800s and 1900s with movements such as abolitionism, the Black Women’s Club Movement and the civil rights movement.

Mary Church Terrell, the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, described how charitable organizations had “a keen sense of the responsibility” to secure economic and educational resources, “lifting as we climb” up the ladder of social mobility. This ethic of giving was also present among the early black economic elite such as Thomy Lafon, Madame C.J. Walker and James Forten.

Black giving remains strong to this day. Despite racial wealth gaps, black families contribute larger portions of their wealth than any other racial and ethnic group. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation reports that two-thirds of all black households donate to charitable causes. This giving amounts to about $11 billion annually, most of which goes to religious organizations.

But how much of it goes to higher education? African Americans across the socioeconomic spectrum report donating 17% to education – both K-12 and post-secondary institutions and scholarship funds. That adds up to about $1.8 billion donated annually.

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Source: The Conversation

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