This year, at the 165th commencement of Wilberforce University, I made an announcement that captured the attention, it seems, of the world, placing the university in the spotlight: “Members of the classes of 2020 and 2021, because we are in awe of your strength and perseverance, because you’ve made your families and friends proud, because you have shown the world you are capable of enduring difficult times, because you represent the best of future generations, we wish to give you a fresh start.” In summary, I announced the university cleared the debt directly owed to the university by the grads. Wilberforce was proud to relieve some of their financial responsibility, but we could not alleviate their debt that is owed to federal student loans or financial institutions.
It was sheer joy to witness the unbridled excitement and delight of our graduates in their implicit realization that their university cared about them and their future. Indeed, we cleared their accounts, but we also provided them a moment in the sun following a year of unexpected challenges and uncertainty.
No doubt that announcement has resurrected the broader conversation about relieving student debt, but that must involve many divergent voices and perspectives. However, like most thorny issues facing the American public that conjure deep seated attitudes about race, poverty and systemic unfairness, there will be conversations that undoubtedly generate more heat than light. I do believe, however, that some relief of student debt has the potential to positively and significantly impact the lives and futures of all students.
So, in our serene, southwest corner of rural Ohio, we made a decision focusing on the graduating classes of 2020 and 2021 for which we will be forever proud. We determined that we could provide at once, an acknowledgement of their hard work and give them a little more runway to begin their lives with one less debt to manage.
Elfred Anthony Pinkard is the 22nd president of Wilberforce University