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Missouri HBCU cancels college debt for its students

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Harris-Stowe State University
Recent graduates of Missouri's Harris-Stowe State University were grateful when school leaders used federal pandemic relief funds to pay their debt for the 2020-2021 academic year, says interim university president Dr. LaTonia Collins Smith.

Student debt plagues graduates and keeps some people from attending school. Harris-Stowe State University, one of Missouri's historically Black colleges, has joined the effort to alleviate that struggle.

Harris-Stowe State University, one of the two Historically Black Colleges and Universities in Missouri, has joined other HBCUs nationwide in using federal pandemic relief funds to cancel student debt.

Dr. LaTonia Collins Smith, Harris-Stowe's interim president, said the pandemic created an "insurmountable burden" of student debt that led to low enrollment this fall.

"Many of our students were saying they couldn't work — because of COVID-19, they lost their jobs," said Smith. "As a result they could not make payments towards their balances for the previous semester or the semesters which were impacted by COVID-19."

The university pledged to use federal funds to zero out the students' account balances from the 2020-2021 academic year. In total, about $330,000 worth of debt was expunged, averaging about $1,076 per student.

Eliminating the threat of payments coming due allowed students to focus on their education, Smith said, adding they were overjoyed with the news — once they figured out it was real.

"Ironically, many of the students thought it was a hoax," said Smith.

After sending an email to notify students, school officials spent most of the next week convincing them the news was true. Letters and phone calls of gratitude started to pour in from students and parents.

Smith recalled a student who had lost their job, had to spend their semester away from campus and incurred financial responsibilities for the funeral expenses of numerous loved ones they lost to the pandemic.

"Just knowing that you could alleviate just a small bit of pressure from a student and everything that they were going through was amazing for us," Smith said. "Cases like that helped us know that we did the right thing."

As a host and contributor at KCUR, I seek to create a more informed citizenry and richer community. I want to enlighten and inspire our audience by delivering the information they need with accuracy and urgency, clarifying what’s complicated and teasing out the complexities of what seems simple. I work to craft conversations that reveal realities in our midst and model civil discourse in a divided world. Follow me on Twitter @ptsbrian or email me at brian@kcur.org.
Reginald David is an assistant producer with Up To Date. You can reach him at reginalddavid@kcur.org.
Connor Stewart is an intern for KCUR's Up To Date.