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Student Freedom Agreement


Norfolk State University does not endorse Student Freedom Initiative’s Income Contingent Alternative to Parent Plus and other private education loans product. Norfolk State University is not affiliated with Student Freedom Initiative.

Student Freedom Initiative programming includes the Student Freedom Agreement. While general programming by Student Freedom Initiative is for all students, Student Freedom Agreement is an income-contingent funding alternative for eligible students. NSU students who meet eligibility requirements may qualify for up to $20,000 per academic year to cover the remainder of the cost of their attending the university. Applications may be offered to students who would traditionally apply for funding sources such as private student loans and Parent PLUS loans. Learn more about Student Freedom Agreement.

Student Freedom Initiative at NSU

Student Freedom Initiative was created to be “a single-purpose nonprofit organization.” The mission of Student Freedom Initiative is to serve as a catalyst for minority students at Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) to find freedom in professional and life choices. Norfolk State University students who participate in the Student Freedom Initiative program, will be more equipped to increase their social and economic mobility following graduation.

Student Freedom Initiative programming is a real-time solution, innovating and scaling, to find opportunities to free students from the crushing burden of student loan debt. The programs are student-centric, evidence-based, holistic, and collaborative. They are structured to help students to find their strengths and gain confidence in their interpersonal abilities and academic skills. This empowering dynamic aims to help students succeed after graduation, to be ready for opportunities that will allow them to reach their personal and professional goals. Because at Student Freedom Initiative, we know a degree is about more than academics.

In a news article, NSU president Dr. Javaune Adams-Gaston spoke of current and future projects and investments on campus that reflect the excellence of both students and staff. She hoped the school, a top-20 HBCU, would continue to provide tools to prepare students to take on their dreams on day one after graduation.

“We have students that are brilliant and looking to change the world. They’re really looking to go out and do things they hadn’t considered in terms of careers,” Dr. Adams-Gaston told a reporter,  “I hope they leave with, ‘this is a place that is important.’ And, what you do comes from the community you bring [...] into the institution, and return it to the community with excellence.”

Student Freedom Initiative’s holistic student-centered program, created to uplift students, who in turn will give back to NSU and their communities.

Student Freedom Initiative works with institutions of higher learning, to provide students with academic skills and career opportunities they need to succeed after graduation, including:

  • Tutoring
  • Mentoring
  • Other support services
  • Internships

Rising juniors and seniors may also be eligible to apply for an income-contingent funding alternative.

Eligibility for Student Freedom Agreement

The Student Freedom Agreement is an income-contingent funding alternative to Parent PLUS and private educational loan programs. The Student Freedom Agreement is available at Norfolk State University and other participating colleges and universities. However, the program is currently only available to rising juniors and seniors in specified majors, as determined by credit hour.

NSU’s administration in collaboration with Student Freedom Initiative has indicated that students in the following majors are eligible to apply for the Student Freedom Agreement:

  • Computer & Information Sciences
  • Information Technology
  • Cybersecurity
  • Electroical and Electronics Engineering
  • Optical Engineering
  • Biology
  • Mathematics
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Materials Science
  • Materials Science and Engineering

Students at Norfolk State University, who meet the requirements, must also meet the following eligibility criteria to receive Student Freedom Agreement funding.

Note: The student must meet all the following criteria immediately prior to the disbursement of funds (as determined and confirmed by NSU):

  • Completed a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or acceptable alternative state aid application that is accepted and approved by student’s school;
  • A valid Social Security Number;
  • Not an international student or foreign exchange student authorized to enter the United States on a non-immigrant visa;
  • Majority age or older;
  • Junior or senior for the school year being funded;
  • Enrolled full-time for the coming academic term (unless we grant an exception because student requires less than full-time enrollment to complete his/her bachelor’s degree in her/his final year of study);
  • Working towards a degree in an approved STEM major; and
  • Meeting satisfactory academic progress as defined by NSU.

For additional information about Student Freedom Initiative and the Student Freedom Agreement, please contact NSU’s Financial Aid office or check  Student Freedom Initiative’s website for updates.

Student Freedom Agreement Details

Students who meet all of the aforementioned criteria in the section above may apply for financial assistance through Student Freedom Initiative. After a student signs the Student Freedom Agreement and the application is processed,  the student will be offered funding. If a student accepts funding, the payment period will begin January 1, following graduation. The payment term will be 20 years, or until the Termination Amount is zero. Payments will be based solely on a graduate’s earned income and not an arbitrary number. Student payments will go back into Student Freedom Initiative to fund other students’ dreams.

The Student Freedom Agreement is intended to be used in conjunction with other financial aid funding. The Student Freedom Agreement is designed to cover a portion of a student’s overall costs. The Student Freedom Agreement is not meant to replace state aid, institutional aid, federal grants, work-study or Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized loans. However, the Student Freedom Agreement is designed to benefit students who are forced to seek financial assistance.

By design, the Student Freedom Agreement can fill gaps in funding, such as when students run out of options during their final semesters and decide to take Parent PLUS loans and/or private loans. The Student Freedom Agreement is an alternative to cover costs after other options have been fully explored. Individual student funding is to be capped at $20,000 per academic year and $40,000 total.

Students considering a Student Freedom Agreement application should thoroughly read all information provided by Student Freedom Initiative before and during the application and approval process. The terms of the Student Freedom Agreement are straightforward and available to all qualifying applicants.

Visit the website for more details about the Student Freedom Agreement application process.

History of Student Freedom Initiative

By the time the average Black or minority student graduates from college, they are already disproportionately hamstrung by debt compared to white students to the tune of over $7,000. And that amount quickly doubles and triples as interest accrues. This disproportionate student loan debt holds minority graduates back from gaining access to career opportunities which equates to a more limited career trajectory, even for the most promising candidates. This isn’t equity.

To rectify this problem and uplift one group of students, Robert F. Smith, the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, famously paid off $34 million in student loan debts for the Morehouse College Class of 2019. Smith’s work with Morehouse led him to engage with educators and financial experts about his idea to scale a solution to student debt that would help generations of students. One of the solutions that came about was Student Freedom Initiative. Later, Smith was named Chairman of the organization.

The nonprofit granting institution Fund II Foundation launched Student Freedom Initiative with a $50 million gift. And Smith, Fund II Foundation’s founding director and President, matched that gift with $50 million of his own to kickstart the project and attract other partners.

Contributors to Student Freedom Initiative now include: the Steve and Marjorie Harvey Foundation, Cisco, Jane Street, the Walmart Foundation with a grant from The Center for Racial Equity, and the United Negro College Fund. The Business Roundtable announced its companies are partnering with Student Freedom Initiative through the Business Roundtable Racial Equity & Justice Subcommittee on Education.

The Student Freedom Agreement, the financial aspect of Student Freedom Initiative, is meant to be a self-sustaining program. With the initial funding in place and student applications accepted, the program is well underway.

America’s HBCUs are bringing new generations of leaders into every industry and are revitalizing the economy. Student Freedom Initiative will bear fruit, and a growing list of partner organizations is a testament to the belief that our strength is in our diversity and our ability to innovate solutions.

For more information about Student Freedom Initiative and to get updates on new developments, please visit Student Freedom Initiative’s website.

Student Freedom Initiative & Robert F. Smith

The problem of student debt grows by the year, and the people most affected by it are members of minority communities. This debt has suppressed the career and family ambitions of too many, and exacerbated the inequality of wealth and opportunity in the United States. Philanthropist and entrepreneur Robert F. Smith spoke of the $1.6 trillion in student debt as a human rights crisis. It was for this reason Smith helped launch Student Freedom Initiative.

“The Initiative is purposefully built to redress historic economic and social inequities and to offer a sustainable, scalable platform to invest in the education of future Black leaders,” Smith, Chairman of Student Freedom Initiative, said in a statement.

His understanding of the issues deepened when Smith took on the student debts of the entire Morehouse College graduating class of 2019. The announcement of the $34 million gift during commencement made international headlines, but Smith’s gift to the 2019 Morehouse graduates also inspired him to take a deeper look into student debt. As a result, Smith with a coalition of HBCU and financial leaders determined that an alternative means to fund the critical final semesters of a student’s academic career would be the starting point for the program. Additionally, the program would include the kinds of student supports traditionally underrepresented populations might lack as they enter the workforce.

It is hoped that Student Freedom Initiative programs will serve as a catalyst for all NSU students looking to achieve excellence in their academic and professional careers. Juniors and seniors at NSU may also benefit from a new income-contingent funding alternative, the Student Freedom Agreement.

The launch of Student Freedom Initiative in 2020 was made possible by a grant of $50 million from the Fund II Foundation, a nonprofit organization with a track-record of funding racial equity initiatives related to education, history, music and the environment. The founding director and President of Fund II Foundation, Smith, personally granted Student Freedom Initiative $50 million in matching funds. As word of the initiative has spread, other groups have stepped forward to help provide technical assistance, resources for students on campus, internships and program funding.

How Robert F. Smith Got His Start

Smith graduated from Cornell University with a degree in chemical engineering, which for a time fulfilled his dream of devising new products by creating elegant solutions. But as his success expanded his worldview, Smith became intrigued by the world of finance when an article profiling a Black financier was published in the early 80s.

Smith had been raised in a tight-knit working-class neighborhood in Denver, Colorado, by two parents who worked hard to obtain doctoral degrees in education. They encouraged him intellectually, but their experiences of the world did not include an understanding of investments. So, Smith, the chemical engineer, took a mid-career risk and became a student at Columbia Business School. Smith’s drive was not without precedent. While in high school, he had doggedly pursued a college-level internship at Bell Labs and got it through a combination of persistence and determination.

From STEM to Entrepreneurship

Smith graduated with honors from Columbia Business School at Columbia University in 1994 and took his MBA to Goldman Sachs. There he discovered his STEM background was an incredible resource and asset as the technology sector in Silicon Valley experienced exponential growth. Then, In 2000, he took yet another risk and launched Vista Equity Partners, to focus on the enterprise software and technology sectors. At the time, software had been considered less worthy of investment than hardware (think Apple, IBM). Over 20-years later, Smith is the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Vista, a global-leading investment firm with five offices in major cities around the country and satellite offices worldwide.

Accolades and Awards

Smith has been honored by numerous organizations because of his distinctive philanthropic giving, which has centered around community initiatives which are meant to uplift the human spirit. Smith’s advocacy for racial equity initiatives and Civil Rights began when his mother modeled giving with her monthly tithe to UNCF. This was later reinforced when he joined the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at Cornell. The organization, which boasts of a number of Civil Rights activists as brothers, has a long-standing tradition of community service.

In 2017, Smith became the first African American to sign the Giving Pledge. Smith committed to donating much of his wealth to better his community and to make this world a more equitable place for all. Part of this has included a number of education gifts. Also in 2017, Cornell renamed the school Smith graduated from: Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. School leadership stated the name was in honor of Smith’s achievements as both a STEM graduate and an entrepreneur. Smith funded a $10 million STEM scholarship for women and African American students at Cornell.

Smith’s education-related donations also include:

  • The Sphinx Organization
  • DonorsChoose
  • Goalsetter
  • The Robert F. Smith Internship Program at the American Museum of African American History and Culture.
  • The UNCF Sylvia M. Young Smith Scholarship
  • Fund II Foundation UNCF STEM Scholars Program
  • InternX

The advocacy and initiatives Smith has begun and for which he provided funding have captured public imagination. As such, organizations have recognized Smith for his combination of  leadership and business acuity. Time Magazine profiled Smith as one of the TIME100 Most Influential People of 2020. That same year, Forbes included Smith in a round up of what it deemed the 100 Greatest Living Business Minds.

Smith was awarded the Ripple of Hope Award from Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights in 2010. He received the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy and the UNCF President’s Award in 2019. Also in 2019, he became a Texas Business Hall of Fame 2019 Inductee. Smith is the first Black American to serve as Chairman of Carnegie Hall, a position he has held since 2016. As a prominent alumnus, Smith serves on the Cornell Engineering College Council and the Board of Overseers of Columbia Business School.

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Visit Student Freedom Initiative, to learn more.