Creating equal opportunities for all students pursuing higher education is crucial in shaping the next generation of leaders. This is especially important for underserved students, who are often not afforded the same opportunities as their peers. In fact, according to a study from Gallup, in partnership with the Walton Family Foundation, only 39% of the Black students surveyed believed they could afford college, even though the majority wanted to attend institutions of higher education after graduating from high school.
Keith Shoates, Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Student Freedom Initiative (SFI), understands the need to create opportunities for underserved and underrepresented students more than most. As COO of SFI, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization dedicated to financially helping underserved students, he sustains and promotes the mission of the initiative in several different ways. Recently, he appeared before the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Development on behalf of SFI. Below, we address his testimony during the hearing and the ways SFI, and its Chairman Robert F. Smith, are helping students.
Testimony Before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce Subcommittee
On Wednesday, June 14, 2023, Shoates went before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce Subcommittee to express his concerns about the lack of funding to improve Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) and the solutions that can increase this funding for student success. Shoates spoke to the fundamental program pillars of SFI, the work that has been done since its inception to help students and the importance of HBCUs.
For example, HBCUs have graduated 40% of all Black engineers, 40% of all Black U.S. Congress members, 50% of all Black lawyers and 80% of all Black judges. Since HBCUs produce large proportions of these diverse leaders, it is crucial that more funding is provided to these institutions. SFI works with organizations and corporate partners to get additional funding and necessary resources to HBCUs to help ensure that students are successful.
Watch Shoates’ entire hearing below, where he further explains the importance of SFI in front of critical stakeholders.
SFI’s Mission to Help Underserved Students
SFI provides underserved students attending HBCUs and other MSIs with a catalyst for freedom. This is achieved through carefully crafted SFI programs that help liberate students from financial burdens to help them make their own career and life choices to be successful. These programs include:
- Tutoring, mentorships and other services: SFI directly partners with participating schools and corporate partners to provide student support resources that include tutoring and mentoring. In addition, other services such as resume writing, interview and test-taking prep are provided to students to help them secure future employment.
- Internships: SFI partners with Fund II Foundation and internXL to connect students with valuable internship opportunities. The internXL platform not only provides students with the opportunity to connect with well-known corporations but also offers them job readiness and soft skill development through its Learning Management System.
- Targeted Capacity-Building: SFI provides targeted capacity-building, particularly to participating HBCUs that lack sufficient technical resources. SFI has helped HBCUs residing in broadband deserts apply for federal funding to deliver reliable and affordable high-speed internet, and has also partnered with Cisco to upgrade the cybersecurity capacity at these institutions. These cybersecurity upgrades helped to protect the schools’ and students’ data, as well as save $1.5 billion in funding from the Department of Education’s Title IV funding program.
- Student Freedom Agreement: SFI provides the Student Freedom Agreement to qualifying junior and senior STEM majors to relieve some of the burden that comes with taking out student loan debt. This agreement can potentially provide approved students with up to $20,000 per year for their education without a co-signer or credit check.
Robert F. Smith’s Commitment to Advancing Educational Equity
Smith serves as Chairman of SFI and has been a longtime supporter of advancing educational equity for all students. Smith’s monumental gift to the 2019 graduating class of Morehouse College, where he paid off all student loan debt of the students and that held by their guardians, is the act that inspired the creation of SFI. He knew that more needed to be done for underserved students to receive equal opportunities in education and their future careers.
In addition to SFI, Smith has continuously supported both of his alumnus institutions, Columbia Business School and Cornell University, making donations to support students there. Smith gifted $25 million to Columbia Business School for its expansion into the Manhattanville neighborhood in West Harlem and to establish The Robert F. Smith ’94 Scholarship.
Additionally, Smith contributed $20 million to Cornell University’s College of Engineering and another $10 million in Tech Scholars scholarships for Black students and women. Later, in 2022, Smith made another gift totaling $15 million to Cornell University’s College of Engineering, which created three unique funds at the university for both graduate and undergraduate students.
Learn more about what Smith is doing to advance educational equity by following him on LinkedIn.