By Amir Vera, CNN
Covid-19 ruined Brécha Byrd’s inaugural season as a basketball player at Saint Augustine’s University, a historically Black school in North Carolina.
The 19-year-old had been excited to play since her high school season months earlier was cut short in 2020. She lost her chance to play when the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) canceled the men’s and women’s basketball season between December 2020 and January, putting the once excited freshman’s athletic scholarship at risk.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Byrd told CNN.
By June, Byrd was back home in Surry County, Virginia, still concerned about her future as a student at SAU. Then she received an email saying her balance was wiped out. Byrd did not say what it had been, but now it was $0.
Saint Augustine’s announced it used $9 million it received in federal funds to clear the debt of 800 students — including Byrd — who attended the school in the spring, summer and fall semesters in 2021.
“Throughout this whole journey this past year, getting that email meant a lot to me,” she said.
Saint Augustine’s is not the only school to do this in the past three months.
More than 20 historically Black colleges and universities have made headlines for clearing student debt using funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, illustrating the integral and life-changing role these institutions play in the lives of not only the Black students who attend these schools, but also their families.
To date, the schools have cleared out a combined total of more than $25 million in student debt. There are more than 100 HBCUs across the United States.
Officials from the United Negro College Fund and Thurgood Marshall College Fund — non-profit organizations that look to serve HBCUs and their students — told CNN these recent initiatives aren’t new to the schools, which pride themselves on helping students thrive during their college careers and after they walk the stage at graduation, generating generational wealth for Black families.
“These institutions — though underfunded — punch above their weight in terms of outcome, production and impact,” said Lodriguez Murray, senior vice president of public policy and government affairs at the United Negro College Fund.
For the students, this means they can now focus on new opportunities, jobs or even furthering their education without having to worry about mounting debt from their undergrad years.
CNN spoke to four students from three colleges and universities about their debts being cleared. Here’s what they had to say:
North Carolina student feared losing her athletic scholarship
Byrd was a senior in high school when Covid-19 hit. She told CNN her team’s state basketball championship was canceled. The remainder of her high school career also came to a screeching halt, as classes quickly went virtual.
“You imagine your senior year before it happens … and then it turns out completely different,” Byrd said, adding her high school coach died a month after she left for Saint Augustine’s.
When she found out her season was canceled, it put everything in limbo. Would she be able to keep her athletic scholarship? If not, how would she pay for school? How would she keep her grades up to also keep her academic scholarships?
About 78% of bachelor’s degree recipients have a debt less than $30,000, according to a 2015-16 study by the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities.
“My parents are still paying off student debt to this day,” Byrd said.
Murray, with the UNCF, said students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds need every opportunity to climb the socioeconomic and professional latter, and any financial impediment removed — big or small — is significant.
HBCUs clearing student debt “helps break the cycle of debt and a lack of individual and generational wealth that exists in the African American community today,” said David Sheppard, chief legal officer and chief of staff at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.
Students will now “have the ability to not only select a career in their chosen field of study, but be more selective in the job they can choose. They don’t have to jump at the first job that will help them clear debt,” Sheppard said.
Byrd said having her debt cleared “feels like a burden lifted off of my shoulders” and it shows HBCUs “want to see us succeed as both students and as people.”
She said she aspires to be a corporate attorney and that this motivated her to continue on that path.
Virginia student struggled being both an essential worker and mother
Marquita Canady had everything under control when she decided, as a 37-year-old, to enroll in an online program at Norfolk State University in southeastern Virginia.
She told CNN she’d been doing a great job of balancing studies, her job as a phlebotomist along with being a mother and wife. Then Covid-19 hit, she was deemed an essential worker and her son got sick.
“It was very mind-boggling. I couldn’t focus between that and my son and by me working at a health care facility. It was just a lot mentally,” Canady said. “That was one of the reasons — along with my son — that I had to withdraw.”
Her decision to withdraw came with a $1,700 leftover balance that she owed NSU. That was until July 27, when she received notification the school had paid off her balance.
NSU used $2.5 million to cancel the account balances of 1,255 students who attended the university between Spring 2020 and 2021.
About 75% of the student body at HBCUs are Pell Grant eligible, meaning they come from low- to moderate-income households, according to Murray with the UNCF.
“HBCUs often lead in higher education, and they have this tradition of wraparound services that takes students from fragile backgrounds and give them the strength to move forward into the world,” Murray said.
The schools also have a mix of students who are legacies — meaning their parents or other relatives are alumni — and first-generation college students like Canady, who said she’d be the first in her family to receive a degree.
HBCUs also have a culture of caring for students outside the classroom, understanding who they are culturally and socially, according to Sheppard with the Thurgood Marshall Fund. Canady remembered telling a dean at NSU she needed to take a break, and instead of just accepting it, the administrator tried to persuade her not to leave.
“I’m sure there are a lot of students with stories like mine,” she said.
She said the clearing of her debt just emphasized how HBCUs “are really looking out for students.”
Most importantly, Canady does plan on returning to school for fall 2021.
“I set that goal for myself to get my bachelor’s and so I can fulfill my dream,” she said, adding she also wants to set a good example for her son.
“I feel like he sees me pushing myself to do that at 37. It’s never too late and I want him to know that.”
North Carolina student missed connection with professors
Christopher Ingram is the first in his family to attend an HBCU, and he’s a rising senior at St. Augustine’s University.
“It was the best decision I ever made,” he told CNN. “I wanted to be around my people, experience my culture and learn more about Black history on a collegiate level.”
Ingram is heavily involved on campus, serving as the Student Government Association president. When the 2019-20 school year began, he also made it his mission to ensure students were registered to vote in the 2020 election.
But when he traveled to Myrtle Beach for some much-needed vacation time in South Carolina, the pandemic was underway.
“I started to realize this is no joke, people are literally dying left and right,” he said. “The school was shutting down and next thing you know my trip to Myrtle Beach was cut short.”
Ingram headed back home to Freeport, New York, where he remained for the rest of the school year. The heavily involved and personable student found switching to a virtual learning environment to be a struggle.
HBCUs are known for their smaller class sizes and close student-professor relationships, something the pandemic robbed students of when mask mandates, stay-at-home orders and social distancing became the norm.
“That’s where a lot of students struggled. We didn’t have that one-on-one connection and we missed having them around — our professors, teachers and leaders,” Ingram said.
He still kept in touch with students, encouraging his classmates to not give up despite the difficulty of the virtual environment.
Ingram learned in May his and other students’ balances were cleared. He did not say how much he owed SAU.
“Once that email hit, the SAU community on Instagram just lit up,” he said, adding that without debt he won’t have to worry about “the tremendous bills as soon as I walk off the stage.”
“Knowing I have to go into grad school and the fees I have to pay, that’s where my finances will go toward rather than looking at the debt I have to pay from undergrad,” he said.
“This is why I decide to come to an HBCU, knowing that I’d be taken care of.”
Delaware student feared not being able to graduate due to outstanding balance
Alynnda Williams realized how crucial HBCUs were when she landed on campus at Delaware State University.
The 22-year-old Philadelphia native told CNN she had been scared to leave home, admitting she cried a lot when she first left. But after her freshman year at DSU, she realized she now had a “family outside of my family.”
As the first in her family to both attend and ultimately graduate from a university, she had a lot of people counting on her to succeed. Her grades weren’t the issue, though.
Her entire tenure at DSU, Williams always had a fear of outstanding debt, or not being able to return to school because she owed the school money. At DSU, students must clear their balance before registering for classes, according to DSU’s academic regulations.
“My biggest fear was would I not be able to graduate and get my diploma,” she said, adding that at one point she owed more than $12,000.
The university relaxed its rules when the pandemic hit, Williams said, but some of her friends didn’t return in fall 2020 because classes went completely virtual.
The remaining debt lingered on Williams’ mind, especially since she had plans for a master’s degree.
“I really did not know how that bill was going to be paid, and I knew it had to be paid before grad school,” she said.
Then on Mother’s Day — 24 hours after she graduated with her bachelor’s degree — she got an email from DSU.
“That’s when I saw it said $0. I logged out and I logged back in, and I was confused as to what was going on,” Williams said. “I called my mom, and told her it was her Mother’s Day gift. I was in shock.”
With her debt cleared, Williams said she plans to get her master’s in social work so she can start an organization to assist foster children — like herself — in applying for jobs, college and transitioning out of the system to have a successful life.
Williams did tell CNN she wishes more students could have the blessings she received, and that it was “ridiculous the cost of school is stopping people from accomplishing their goals.”
“We shouldn’t have to settle for less because we can’t afford it,” she said.
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