After a Billionaire’s Pledge, Morehouse Looks to Donors to Reduce Student Debt

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“I wouldn’t want to put that burden on her,” he said of his mother. “So if I can’t afford graduate school or I don’t get a full-ride scholarship, it’s going to have to be on the back burner right now because I have to put food on my plate.”

More than 44 million people hold student loan debt totaling roughly $1.6 trillion, and black students borrow and default at disproportionate rates, according to an analysis of Education Department data by the Brookings Institution. The analysis showed that 38 percent of black students who began college in 2004 defaulted on their loans within 12 years, as opposed to 12 percent of white students, which researchers attribute in part to differences in family wealth.

Democratic presidential candidates have proposed a host of programs to combat the debt crisis, including subsidizing all tuition, eliminating all or some college debt and making community college free. In May, Washington State passed a law reducing or ending tuition for some students. And as a majority of students have said financial circumstances influenced their decision on which college to attend, universities themselves have pledged to lower their sticker prices or even eliminate tuition, such as New York University’s medical school.

Money was on Victor Barkley’s mind when he applied to colleges, but he said the opportunities he had at Morehouse were worth the tens of thousands of dollars in debt he and his family have accrued. Mr. Barkley, 20, a rising senior from Silver Spring, Md., who is working as a finance intern at Boeing this summer, said the college’s plan to reduce students’ debt load would allow him to take more risks in his career.

“That would just allow for more opportunity,” he said. “I’d have no liabilities and I’d be able to put that money back in my community or further invest in myself.”

Erik Holston Jr. also viewed the new program as a chance to spread the benefits he has had as a student at an elite college. Mr. Holston arrived at Morehouse determined to be a lawyer, but his friends and professors encouraged him to follow his heart and pursue entrepreneurship, in part because of his desire to uplift others.

“I want to do something that’s going to help me put myself in the best position possible,” said Mr. Holston, 21, a rising senior from Chicago. “When you have that position and power, you can change lives” as Mr. Smith did.

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