How Activists Turned Pennies into a $10M Lifeline for HBCU Students

In an era where student debt looms like a dark cloud over graduates, a beacon of hope has emerged, proving that activism and solidarity can indeed trigger tangible change. This week, the world witnessed a remarkable act of resistance and relief: debt activists, in a stunning move, eradicated nearly $10 million in student debt for attendees of a renowned historically Black college, literally for pennies on the dollar.

Here’s the deal-breaker: The Debt Collective, a bold debtors’ union, alongside the Rolling Jubilee Fund, pulled off a financial Houdini. They acquired almost $10 million worth of delinquent student debt from Morehouse College, an esteemed historically Black men’s liberal arts institution in Atlanta, for a startlingly low $125,000. And then? They canceled it. All of it. Poof! Gone!

This wasn’t just about numbers on a balance sheet. This move liberated 2,777 students from the chains of financial burden from the Fall 2022 term and before, allowing them unhindered access to their transcripts and the freedom to don their caps and gowns without the weight of debt on their shoulders. Morehouse College, whose alumni roster boasts names like Martin Luther King Jr., gave the green light for this initiative, opening a new chapter of hope for its students.

Why does this matter, you ask? Because this isn’t just a win for these students; it’s a rallying cry, a demonstration that broad-scale debt cancellation isn’t a pipe dream. It’s a feasible, practical solution to a crisis suffocating millions of Americans, particularly those in Black communities who are disproportionately shackled by student debt.

Braxton Brewington, a spokesperson for the Debt Collective, put it starkly: “Our nation is defaulting on the promise of education,” he stated, emphasizing the insidious burden of debt that hampers the futures of Black graduates from HBCUs. This substantial move isn’t just about alleviating debt; it’s about restoring opportunities – to own homes, to start businesses, to build futures.

And yet, as these activists have shown us, the federal government remains glaringly on the sidelines. The Biden administration, despite campaign promises, hasn’t yet turned the tide on HBCU graduate debt. “We’re doing our part,” Brewington urged, “and it’s time Biden does his. 45 million Americans need this relief.”

The reality is stark. David A. Thomas, Morehouse’s president, underscores that debt isn’t just a financial figure; it’s a formidable barrier to education and post-graduation success. Their ambitious goal is to turn Morehouse into a need-blind institution by 2030, ensuring money doesn’t dictate a student’s future. Initiatives like those from the Debt Collective and Rolling Jubilee aren’t just funds; they’re lifelines, leveling the playing field for students and alumni alike.

And this isn’t a one-off for these activists. Over the years, they’ve wiped clean millions in student and carceral debt, utilizing strategic purchases to emancipate tens of thousands from financial burdens. They’ve stood up against fraudulent educational institutions and launched tools empowering borrowers to seek their own debt cancellation.

In the face of setbacks, like President Biden’s debt cancellation plan being derailed by the Supreme Court, they’re not backing down. They’ve set up a new mechanism for borrowers to appeal directly to the Department of Education for debt relief, citing legal authority under the Higher Education Act. In just two months, over 30,000 borrowers have reached out for this lifeline.

So, what’s the takeaway here? This isn’t just about celebrating a victory for a few thousand students. It’s a clarion call to recognize student debt as the national crisis it is. It’s about acknowledging the power of collective action and the necessity of holding institutions and leaders accountable. These activists aren’t just erasing debt; they’re highlighting systemic failure and demanding sweeping reform.

Our takeaway should be one of empowerment. Change is possible; relief is achievable. Through solidarity, strategy, and relentless pursuit of justice, we can transform pennies into freedom and debt into opportunity. The fight continues, and it’s one we all should be a part of.