In an effort to provide relief for young people who are carrying financial burdens during the pandemic, historically Black colleges and universities are using federal funding and private donations to wipe out student debt.

According to NBC News, more than 20 HBCUs have already cleared all or part of the money owed for tuition and fees. More schools are expected to soon join the effort. Ohio’s Wilberforce University, Hampton University in Virginia, Louisiana’s Grambling State University and Clark Atlanta University in Georgia are among the HBCUs using federal pandemic relief aid to clear student debt. 

“We’re committing $5 million, assisting nearly 2,000 students with account balances,” said George T. French Jr. president of Clark Atlanta University in Georgia. “The impetus, of course, was to help our students — and to make sure from a business, from a financial implication posture to make sure that we reduce our student debt, so that they could matriculate and graduate.”

The Atlanta school is not only cancelling outstanding tuition balances, but also other fees.

“If you have a dining or a residence hall balance, it will cover that,” French said. “So whatever balances that you have that would restrict you from coming to school, we are removing those restrictions.”

Autymn Epps was stunned when she learned that Clark Atlanta is wiping out her balance.

“When I found out, I was speechless,” the 20-year-old junior said. “We were all surprised. We were like, ‘is this real? Is this happening?’ We were all just talking about how it was such a blessing.”

Lodriguez Murray, senior vice president for public policy and government affairs at the United Negro College Fund, said HBCUs provide a "culture of caring about their students, not just treating them like a number or bill payers."

"Because of that history and that culture, when the finances occurred from Congress in the Coronavirus stimulus packages that allow institutions the ability to pay off student debt and student fees, HBCUs stepped up to the plate,” Murray said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if more institutions choose to utilize the funds to positively impact their students, because we’re still in the grips of this pandemic.”

French said Clark Atlanta is also getting help from donations, including a $15 million gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, the former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. In addition, the school has received a $1 million gift from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a non-profit organization owned by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan.

The donations, coupled with the federal pandemic stimulus money, are already bringing smiles to dozens of students.

“I’m looking at all of these students who have no prior account balances and their heads are lifted and they’re smiling as they begin a new year,” French said. “It makes me feel tremendously gratified on the inside.”

Almost 85% of Black bachelor’s degree recipients carry student debt, CNBC reported. In comparison, 69% of white bachelor’s degree recipients carry the same burden. 

“The racial wealth gap is both the biggest and has grown the fastest among those with a college education,” said Jason Houle, assistant professor of sociology at Dartmouth College. ”Student loan debt is potentially one thing that explains why that’s happened.”