During his commencement address at Morehouse College, Robert F. Smith made the incredibly generous commitment to pay off the student loan debt for the 396 students graduating that day. This gift has inspired new thinking about supporting college-going students.

A post-secondary degree is incredibly important or even required for many career paths in the modern economy and results in over a million dollars more in earnings compared to a high school diploma. Smith’s inspiring pledge points out that while scholarships are an important piece, student loan debt forgiveness is the ultimate tool in setting a recent graduate up for a lifetime of success.

The gift of college debt forgiveness may seem to many like a rare opportunity only made possible by a billionaire’s generosity. In fact, here in Oklahoma many Oklahomans from all different kinds of backgrounds have given their resources to establish the University of Oklahoma Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education’s Debt Free Teachers program. The program was born out of our desire to find a creative solution to retain OU teacher education graduates in public education classrooms in our state at a time when they had every reason to seek teaching jobs in other states or other careers entirely.

Thanks to the numerous donors who believed in this idea, students who apply and are accepted into the Debt Free Teachers program while at OU are eligible to receive up to $20,000 in student loan debt forgiveness, as long as they teach in an Oklahoma classroom for up to four years.

The OU Debt Free Teachers program began in 2014, and we have accepted 111 people into the program since then. Only three recipients in the program have left the state after graduation, and in each case, they assume responsibility for the remaining debt. We can then move the funds originally committed to them to support others. It’s difficult to recall another program with such a success rate.

One billionaire made a huge single contribution to wipe out student debt. What if hundreds or thousands of Oklahomans made a commitment to wipe out student debt for teachers who graduate from our colleges of education and commit to work in the state?

We have seen the success locally with our debt free teachers program and welcome anyone who would like to become further involved. Until we have a well-prepared teacher for every child, we are missing out on realizing our state’s full potential.

Oklahoma is known for coming together to support those in need. We can pave the way for a brighter future for the current generation of young adults and beyond. Supporting great teachers and making them debt-free teachers is a way to realize that goal.

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