correction

This story originally misreported Robert F. Smith's role in the tax evasion case against his associate Robert Brockman. Smith has admitted to not paying taxes on nearly $200 million and agreed to cooperate in a case against Brockman.

Seated in white folding chairs inside a gymnasium on Saturday morning, the 2020 and 2021 graduating classes of Wilberforce University listened as the president of the historically Black university in Ohio lauded the students for their resilience during an arduous year.

Then he made an unexpected announcement.

“We wish to give you a fresh start,” Elfred Anthony Pinkard, the university’s president, told the students. “Therefore, the Wilberforce University Board of Trustees has authorized me to forgive any debt.”

Students jumped from their seats and cheered; parents clapped from the bleachers. One student stood, awestruck, mouth agape and looking side to side, making sure he had heard Pinkard correctly.

“Your accounts have been cleared,” Pinkard continued, followed by more applause and yelps of joy. “And you don’t owe Wilberforce anything. Congratulations.”

In all, more than $375,000 in student debt was wiped away, said the university, which is about 20 miles east of Dayton.

Wilberforce, which enrolls more than 700 students, 166 of whom were in this year’s graduating class, secured funding to erase the debt through the United Negro College Fund and other nonprofit organizations, including Jack and Jill of America, the school said.

The move came during a week of racial reckoning as President Biden pledged to close the wealth gap between White and Black Americans at an event on Tuesday commemorating the 100th anniversary of a massacre that left hundreds dead and more than 1,250 homes destroyed in a prosperous Black community in Tulsa. But Biden’s proposals did not include plans to alleviate student debt, an omission that attracted criticism from Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP.

“Components of the plan are encouraging, but it fails to address the student loan debt crisis that disproportionately affects African Americans,” Johnson said. “You cannot begin to address the racial wealth gap without addressing the student loan debt crisis.”

The problem has been particularly acute at HBCUs like Wilberforce, which enroll a disproportionate number of students from low-income families, according to the United Negro College Fund. Unlike major state schools, most HBCUs have smaller endowments thanks to decades of limited funding, The Washington Post recently reported, which has complicated efforts to help reduce tuitions. About 25 percent of students who attend HBCUs borrow $40,000 or more, according to UNCF.

Wilberforce University, the country’s first private university owned and run by African Americans, was established before the Civil War and named after William Wilberforce, a British abolitionist. Although the university shut down during the war, it became a destination point for the Underground Railroad. In the late 19th century, W.E.B. Du Bois taught at the university and met his wife, who was a student there.

When the pandemic hit last year, Wilberforce transitioned to remote learning. The university resumed in-person learning in February, although students could still choose to take classes from home.

On Sunday, the graduates learned they would leave with a degree and less debt than they planned. Although the Wilberforce graduates are still responsible for paying back their federal, state or private loans, their debts to the university are now wiped clean.

“As these graduates begin their lives as responsible adults, we are honored to be able to give them a fresh start,” Pinkard said in a news release.

Rodman Allen, a member of the 2021 graduating class, said the move gave him a more stable foundation for his future.

“I couldn’t believe it when he said it,” Allen said in a news release from the university. “It’s a blessing. I know God will be with me. I’m not worried. I can use that money and invest it into my future.”

Two years ago, another group of graduating students at an HBCU received a similar surprise at their graduation. During his 2019 commencement address at Morehouse College, an all-male school in Atlanta, billionaire and philanthropist Robert F. Smith told graduates that his family was establishing a grant that would pay off all their student loans. (Last year, Smith admitted to not paying taxes on more than $200 million and agreed to help prosecutors in a case against his associate, Robert Brockman, who is accused of hiding more than $2 billion in offshore accounts.)

Last month, officials at Delaware State University announced they were using stimulus funds to forgive over $730,000 of student debt for recent graduates who faced financial hardships during the coronavirus pandemic.

During his speech at the Wilberforce commencement ceremony, Pinkard stressed that the effort was meant to acknowledge the difficulty of graduating during the pandemic.

“Because we are in awe of your strengths and perseverance; because you have made your family and yourselves proud; because you have shown that you are capable of doing work under difficult circumstances; because you represent the best of your generation, we wish to give you a fresh start,” Pinkard said.