82 Percent of HBCUs Are Broadband Deserts — Here’s How Billionaire Robert F. Smith Has Formed A Partnership To Change That
Robert F. Smith made headlines back in the spring of 2019 while delivering a commencement speech at Morehouse College. During the speech, Smith announced he paid the student debt obligations for the group of approximately 400 graduating students. Smith, a billionaire tech investor and philanthropist touted by Forbes as the richest black person in America provided a gift of $34 million to pay off the Morehouse students’ debt.
Smith followed up his individual action during the Morehouse graduation with the creation of the Student Freedom Initiative (SFI). The SFI offers participating Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) students an income contingent alternative to traditional college loans.
Smith provided SFI a $50 million investment to match the initial $50 million provided by the Fund II Foundation. The SFI goal is to create a $450 million endowment supporting 4,500 eligible students attending HBCUs in perpetuity.
The endowment provides an alternative to the crushing burden of high cost, fixed payment student debt offered by private and public sources of student loans. The SFI student loan repayment amounts are based on student income earned after graduation and the loan payments are place back into the endowment to provide a source of loans for new students. Equally important, the initiative offers paid internships in a student’s area of study, tutoring/mentorships, and targeted HBCU capacity building.
While participating in a panel discussion at the September 2022 National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week Conference, Smith announced a second commitment to HBCUs. The White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity through HBCUs sponsors the annual conference. The HBCU community gathers to discuss barriers and to recognize persistent advancement through it all at the event.
During a panel discussion at the event, Smith announced his plans to specifically address the issue of broadband deserts that impacted 82 percent of HBCUs. “That cannot stand. That is something that we need to make sure that our HBCUs and our community demand of not only the federal government but other companies that can enable all our students to have access to broadband immediately, not five years from now.”
His plan expands the SFI scope by providing resources to update HBCUs infrastructure using corporate partnerships to address the digital divide. Smith announced SFI strategic partnership with Cisco and AVC Technologies, and Cisco’s committing $100 million to further SFI’s mission of making sustainable, impact-driven investments to unlock the potential of the entire HBCU ecosystem, their communities, and their students.
“We are thrilled to welcome Cisco and AVC Technologies as strategic partners for SFI in addressing the digital divide faced by our HBCUs,” said Robert F. Smith, Chairman of SFI. Cisco will also invest $50 million to support SFI’s alternative to traditional college loans.
“Their expertise and generosity will ensure that HBCUs are secure and robust institutions that empower Black students. And Cisco’s added financial commitment to students, making them the first anchor corporate partner of SFI, will help liberate students from crushing debt and allow them to make their own life choices. Their gift to SFI’s endowment is a call-to-action to other corporate leaders to join our cause.”
On January 4, 2023, SFI and Cisco announced wireless 5G internet service deployment at Claflin University, located in Orangeburg, SC. This partnership will provide Claflin’s students, teachers, administrators, and staff members with reliable connection to the internet.
The delivery took less than five years as promised, allowing Claflin University to provide a robust and modern educational experience for its students. And also support a higher degree of administrative efficiency at Claflin University.
Now is the right time for HBCU leadership to response to the call-to-action by Robert F. Smith and unlock the potential of the entire HBCU ecosystem. The need for infrastructure enhancements to the nation’s HBCUs and their surrounding communities is urgent.
HBCUs nonprofit status make them eligible for several publicly funded infrastructure investment opportunities. Being mostly located in economically underserved census tracts, increases their eligibility for these investments. These public investment opportunities provide leverage needed to attract private corporate partnerships.
HBCUs may not have availability to the liquid assets Smith used to create the SFI. But they have tangible assets and a track record of providing services to the underserved populations of this nation. HBCU assets, when used as leverage to attract a corporate partnership. are as useful as Smith’s millions. The HBCU Community Development Corporation is available to assist your HBCU in obtaining these investments.
If your HBCU needs assistance getting started contact us at www.hbcucdc.com.
Photo Credit: Ralph Alswang