The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A $250 million scholarship program aimed at keeping students debt-free

Fidelity Investment’s ‘holistic’ initiative could make all the difference for minority students looking to not just graduate but create generational wealth

(Seth Wenig/AP)

I will always remember the day I received the letter that put me on the path to financial security.

I was a high school senior arriving home and had just opened the front door to find my grandmother, Big Mama, squealing: “You won! You won!”

She had opened the letter from the Baltimore Sun announcing that I had received a full academic scholarship to the University of Maryland at College Park.

The money was great.

The scholarship covered four years of tuition, fees, and room and board, as well as books and school supplies. It also included a paid summer internship for all four years of college that would allow me to work with seasoned journalists who would help mentor me.

But here’s the kicker: If I performed well in school and during my internships, a full-time reporter position would be waiting at the newspaper upon graduation.

My grandmother and siblings nearly knocked me to the ground on our front porch — I never made it into the house — as they all tried to hug me. There were tears of gratitude for this life-altering opportunity.

Starting my career with a well-paying job gave me the means to care for my disabled brother. I became a homeowner by the time I was 22 — a two-bedroom, one-bath condominium in West Baltimore. I was able to help another brother with the down payment for his first home. When life happened, I had the savings to help other relatives who needed a hand.

“Adults who have attained at least a bachelor’s degree have better economic outcomes, on average, than adults who have not completed college,” according to the Pew Research Center. “They tend to earn more and accumulate more wealth.”

To be sure, there were times when I struggled as a first-generation college student. My grandmother didn’t know how to help me navigate the stress of campus life or the choices that could derail my plans. But the mentors I had at the Baltimore Sun and Evening Sun did. They guided me, encouraged me and got me through some rough times. Having a relationship with and the support of other scholars helped me succeed as well.

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It was the totality of that now-defunct program — money, mentorship and mental support — that made the difference between me giving up and graduating. We need more like it.

This is why I love a scholar initiative launched this week by Fidelity Investments.

The goal of the Invest in My Education (ME) program is to help as many as 50,000 Black, Latino and other historically underserved students attend college or complete a certificate program with no debt.

Fidelity is committing $250 million over five years, money that will be spent on scholarships but also grants to community groups whose mission is to help students who are in danger of dropping out because of financial need or other issues. For instance, a nonprofit that provides mental health services to young adults could be eligible for a grant.

“We feel this is truly an innovative, holistic approach to investing in Black and Hispanic students as well as other underrepresented groups,” said Pamela Everhart, head of regional public affairs and community relations for Fidelity.

Here’s yet another great aspect of the program. It will target what Everhart calls the “mighty middle,” B students who are often overlooked for scholarships.

“We know that those students who are at the very top of their class, those A students, those 4.0 students, have better access to scholarships,” Everhart said. “But there are students who have unforeseen circumstances in their background where they have not been able to advance at that highest achievement level, but we know they have grit.”

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Fidelity will award scholarships to as many as 2,500 students over five years. It will start in three regions: Boston, Raleigh-Durham and Dallas-Fort Worth. Eventually, the company hopes to expand to other states where it has a footprint. Each of the three regions will start with 100 students in the fall. More students will be added in additional regions in the forthcoming years of the initiative, the company said.

Students who are Pell Grant eligible meaning they show “exceptional financial need can use the scholarship to attend a two- or four-year college, or a certificate program.

“We want to be as inclusive as possible,” Everhart said.

The initiative will also include mentorship by Fidelity staff, internship and apprenticeship guidance, and financial education programs.

Fidelity is partnering with the United Negro College Fund, which will review the applicant pool and select finalists. Students can apply at beginning in March. Scholarship winners will be selected for each pilot region by the end of June.

The $190 million earmarked for the scholarships is UNCF’s largest corporate gift in its 78-year history, according to Michael Lomax, the group’s president and chief executive.

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There is a lot of money out there from both the private and public sectors, but the awards often don’t cover enough college costs to get a student through to graduation without taking on debt — or crushing their parents with education loans.

So much focus right now is on President Biden’s student loan forgiveness program that we forget the path to prosperity for many students — especially those of color and from low-income families — is the ability to finish college without heavy borrowing.

If more American companies do what Fidelity is doing, we may not eliminate all the debt, but we certainly will reduce it,” Lomax said.

Let’s stop focusing on just fixing the federal debt repayment programs and encourage more private scholarship programs like the one I received, and the one Fidelity has created.

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