EXCLUSIVE: Woodfin speaks with CBS 42 about his student loan debt, its impact on his policies

Local News

FILE – In this Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, file photo, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin speaks at a candlelight vigil in Birmingham, Ala. Woodfin is endorsing Joe Biden for the 2020 Democratic Party nomination just weeks after the vice president met with a group of Southern black mayors representing millions of voters in key early primary states. (Joe Songer/The Birmingham News via AP, File)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin is speaking out exclusively with CBS 42 about his student loan debt and its impact on his policies as mayor.

As mayor, Woodfin launched Birmingham Promise, a city initiative aimed at helping the city’s youth pay for college through public and private partnerships.

Woodfin explained that this policy didn’t come out of nowhere. His own experience with significant college debt has shaped his views.

For his undergraduate education, Woodfin attended Morehouse College, an all-male historically black college (HBCU) in Atlanta, where he served as the president of the Student Government Association his senior year.

Later, Woodfin would attend and graduate from Cumberland School of Law at Samford University.

Both Morehouse and Samford are private institutions. Undergraduate tuition at Morehouse is currently $27,038 per year. Law school tuition at Cumberland is now $42,390 per year.

“I was lucky to get fantastic educations from Morehouse College and Cumberland School of Law,” Woodfin said. “But that came with a cost. Like many folks, I continue to carry student loan debt from my time at those institutions.”

Woodfin explained that he hopes policies like the Birmingham Promise will prevent students from experiencing the burden of student loan debt.

“I’m committed to eliminating barriers to higher education, including those around cost,” he said. “I don’t want our students to have to worry about how they will be able to afford their education. That’s why I created Birmingham Promise.”

Woodfin outlined the reach the program has already achieved among city students.

“Birmingham Promise has helped over 400 BCS students attend the college or university of their choice so far — and about 600 more students are on track to participate in its second year of operation.”

According to the city’s website, the Birmingham Promise would not pay for tuition at private institutions like those the mayor attended. Instead, “scholarships will help pay for college tuition and mandatory fees for up to four continuous years in public Alabama colleges.”

There have also historically been limits on how much the program will pay if a graduate did not attend Birmingham City Schools for every year of their K-12 schooling, although the city’s website says that “some of those details are still being worked out” in relation to these limits. Birmingham Promise’s website, which the city points students to for more information, does not elaborate on this limitation.

In addition to alleviating the burden of college debt, Woodfin also said that he sees the program as one that will help keep some of the city’s brightest minds here in the city.

“Every young person should have the opportunity to grow to their fullest potential right here in Birmingham. Unfortunately, we often lose our brightest minds and talent to other U.S. cities, as young people relocate in search of jobs and opportunities,” he said.

So-called “brain drain” is a significant problem in Alabama and in Birmingham specifically.

A report released by Building It Together, a coalition of public and private sector groups, showed that around 43% of college students and 53% of doctoral students do not stay in the area after they complete their studies, although some of this loss was to other regions within the state. The report says that Birmingham, in particular, loses around 360 people to other areas every year.

Woodfin hopes that the Birmingham Promise may reverse this trend.

“I chose to come back here after college and invest my skills, time and energy into the city I love,” he said. “I want everyone to be able to make that same bet on our collective future. By making sure our students can attend college without having to worry about the cost of tuition, I’m making sure Birmingham is a city where everyone can work, live and thrive.”

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