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Plant the Seeds: Cultivating Diversity and Retention, Growing Graduation and Equity

 

How one organization is helping students achieve the dream of a college education without significant debt

By C. Elizabeth Abeyta-Price

 

My childhood memories are stored as a hodgepodge: watching a storm roll in from my perch atop the bales of hay in our barn; going to the library with my mother each Saturday morning to pick out as many books as I liked (with the caveat that at least two of them had to be historical fiction); savoring the smells of newly rolled tortillas, red chile, and pinto beans simmering on the stove; and the spicy aroma of incense wafting upwards during Mass each Sunday. Several decades have passed since those days along the Rio Grande, but it is there that my faith and my professional mission are rooted. seedlings

Family finances necessitated that I attend public K-12 schools, but it was at the parish elementary school of Holy Cross parish (Santa Cruz de la CaƱada) that I won my first official academic award during my second grade CCD class. The autumn before our First Holy Communion, Sister announced that the student earning the most gold stars before our First Holy Communion would receive a beautiful, white, mother-of-pearl rosary that she displayed throughout the year. As I recall, everyone else would receive a red plastic rosary as a consolation prize. That well-worn white rosary sits before me as I write this some 50 years later, a reminder that I studied as hard as my second grade-self could. Its once-luminous beads are now mostly gray, and others would not describe it as beautiful to behold. They, of course, could not know the hours of prayerful conversation that the faded beads represent or the insights I’ve gained into the life of Christ and the mysterious movements of the Spirit.

I left my small, northern New Mexico town for college in 1980, blessed to have received a full, four-year scholarship to the University of Notre Dame and a Ford Foundation pre-doctoral fellowship for my graduate education. My family could never have afforded Notre Dame on our own, but the generosity of others changed the trajectory of my life, as well as my family’s, forever. In the years since leaving campus — and especially as I listen to current undergraduate, graduate students, and alumni — I’ve become increasingly aware of exactly how blessed I was. My story is not unique, but it is altogether too rare.

 

Confronting – and Changing – the Status Quo

Our mission at Impact Capital Funds (ICF) is to replicate my story by helping students achieve a college education without significant debt. We applaud the efforts of ACCU and its member institutions to support the effort to double the maximum Pell Grant to $13,000 (#DoublePell). If successful, not only would larger percentages of talented, low-income students pursue four-year degrees, but both retention and graduation rates would also improve. Unfortunately, even doubling the maximum Pell Grant would not entirely erase the financial barriers faced by low-income students. To complete a four-year degree, many students and their families would still need additional resources and would likely turn to loans, often paying exorbitant interest rates.

 

As things stand, the student loan industry profits most from the neediest students: those with no or thin credit files, those whose parents are unable to co-sign for lower-interest loans, international students, and graduate students pursuing advanced (and expensive) degrees. 

 

Since the 1970s the cost of both public and private education has sky-rocketed by 281% and scholarship aid has not kept up. Student loan indebtedness, which disproportionately affects students who are low-income and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), has swelled to a monstrous $1.7 trillion. As things stand, the student loan industry profits most from the neediest students: those with no or thin credit files, those whose parents are unable to co-sign for lower-interest loans, international students, and graduate students pursuing advanced (and expensive) degrees. To mitigate their financial risk, private loan companies offer high-interest loans to these students and the resulting profits go to shareholders. These companies are structured in such a way that their legal, fiduciary duty is to maximize their investors’ profits. At the same time, the combination of high loan balances and interest rates can be financially, emotionally, and professionally devastating and follow the students for decades after they leave school.

Our Catholic faith and the direct teachings of Jesus tell us that we will be judged by how we treat the least among us — the poor, the stranger, the sick, the prisoner (Matthew 25: 35-46). My conscience tells me that offering high-interest rate loans to the least among us, loans that increase the overall cost of their education and take them decades to repay, is fundamentally inconsistent with Christ’s teaching.

I believe that it is a moral imperative to change the status quo by making significant additional scholarship funds available to low-income, first-generation, and BIPOC students so that they do not need to borrow money in the first place.  We have developed an innovative way to do so. ICF is designed to turn the status quo on its head and, rather than deliver profits to shareholders, turn those profits into new scholarship grants for low-income students. ICF is structured as a social impact company, where we consider all of our stakeholders, not only our investors and shareholders.

Most private institutions of higher education must rely heavily on the generosity of their benefactors, alumni, and a positive yield from their endowments to generate scholarships — and Catholic institutions are no exception. ACCU member colleges and universities are blessed to have loyal alumni who understand the unique value of a college education, where academic and professional pursuits are shaped, enlightened, and challenged by our Catholic faith.

Our proprietary model begins where philanthropic donations end. Regardless of how generous philanthropists may be, donors invest five to ten times more for their own or their families’ benefit than they give away. Given that, we have created a triple-bottom-line investment through which donors, organizations, and institutions can multiply the impact of their capital by investing for themselves while simultaneously raising funds for the academic institutions they already support. They receive a reliable annual return, help refinance high-cost student loans, and create new scholarships for low-income students at universities they designate.

While I wish ICF could solve the entire $1.7 trillion student loan crisis and create scholarships sufficient for every student in need, we have no illusions that we can achieve this on our own. We humbly, and hopefully, echo the prayer associated with Saint Oscar Romero, Archbishop and Martyr:  

“We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work… We plant the seeds that one day will grow… We lay foundations that will need further development… It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest…” (composed by Bishop Ken Untener, 1979).

 

C. Elizabeth Abeyta-Price is co-founder and CEO of Impact Capital Funds.