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Community college wipes graduating students' debt as graduation gift

Group of Graduates
Posted at 4:51 PM, May 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-24 23:14:35-04

Alexander Walker-Griffin is finishing his last days at Contra Costa College, a community college in Northern California. Only one thing was standing in his way: student debt.

Then he got an email.

“To be quite honest with you, I was a little confused and a little bit concerned. I was like, is this a scam?” said Walker-Griffin.

It wasn’t a scam, and he wasn’t the only student who got the email. More than 60 students received an email from the college’s foundation saying their debt had been cleared.

“We effectively, without even telling them, paid off every graduating student’s debt,” said Eric Zell, the president of the Contra Costa College Foundation, which paid off the debt.

“The finish line fund was able to enable students to graduate because they had anywhere from, could have been as simple as $100. That might not sound like a lot to many people but it’s significant to many of these students,” said Zell.

About 85% of the students that attend CCC are low- or middle-income. That makes the average debt forgiveness of $214 a big deal for those who received it.

“This meant that someone could pay their rent, or at least a portion of it, buy groceries, buy their prescriptions, care for someone else, or just care for themselves," said Walker-Griffin

“I actually wasn’t sure that $13,300 was going to move the needle in terms of the community saying, 'good job.' But it absolutely did,” said Sara Marcellino, on the Foundation Board. The email that went out to students came from her.

This is just one of the replies she received from a student who just lost her mother.

"The debt that you choose to pay for me is monumental and bitter-sweet. What may have seemed like a drop in the bucket to you was like a tidal wave in my life," Marcellino read from the letter.

“For a low-income student, a student with a family, struggling to put food on the table, maybe housing insecure, $400, $200, $150 matters," said Marcellino.

The other two community colleges in the district are hoping to start similar programs next year to help their students.

“What it means to me and so many people who tend to be working class in community colleges is that’s one less thing that we have to worry about,” said Walker-Griffin.

“This is really giving folks in this community the second chance, or the first chance, or an opportunity to progress,” said Damon Bell, the President of CCC.

Bell has dedicated his career to community college students.

“Our job is to really eliminate financial barriers for all of the students so they can really focus on their education and not be focused on, 'can I pay my bills, can I fix my car, can I feed myself,'” said Bell.

It’s a graduation present that Walker-Griffin says will give them a little more financial security.

“For myself, I’m eternally grateful for this and I know so many other people are happy about this too.”