How you can attend an HBCU tuition-free

5 Strong students show their enthusiasm for Bethune-Cookman University during a visit to the Florida campus. CONTRIBUTED

5 Strong students show their enthusiasm for Bethune-Cookman University during a visit to the Florida campus. CONTRIBUTED

Come spring, Caleb Franklin will graduate from Alabama A&M University, the first of 14 Georgia students to leave college virtually debt-free thanks to the nonprofit 5 Strong Scholarship Foundation.

If you haven’t heard, 5 Strong recruits students who might otherwise be overlooked by admissions officials and sends them to historically black colleges and universities tuition-free.

The idea isn’t exactly a new one, but with skyrocketing debt plaguing students here and across the country, families need all the help they can get.

For years, the Posse Foundation has been doing this, allowing selected students to bypass the typical admissions process and, after going through training, head to the same college in groups of 10 or so, called posses. The idea is that having bonded before college, they will support one another once they get there.

And for years, Drew Ragland took great pride in helping identify students for that program and then seeing them graduate. That’s what school counselors do.

But in 2013, Ragland started to think what if. What if he could do the same thing but partner with historically black colleges instead? Not that he didn’t like predominantly white institutions. He graduated from one before attending graduate school at Clark Atlanta University, one of nearly a half-dozen HBCUs in Atlanta.

RELATED: A campaign to sustain historically black colleges

After sharing the idea with a few colleagues, Ragland, who recently began his first year counseling students at South Atlanta High School, officially launched the 5 Strong Scholarship Foundation, which works to increase retention and graduation rates at HBCUs.

Franklin, who is 21 and grew up in Atlanta, was among the first 20 students recruited for the program.

To participate, students must first complete an online application. If the applicant meets the minimum requirements, he is invited to the first-round large-group interview, in which the students, who may never have met before, must interact with one another and with 5 Strong volunteers.

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Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

About two-thirds of the students make it to a more conventional, individual interview. About 70 undergo a final interview with 5 Strong staff and alumni from participating institutions.

Five students are chosen for each participating university.

Once accepted, students must attend College Ready Prep sessions twice a month for four and a half months, when they visit participating HBCU campuses and learn about financial aid and balancing academic and social life. Once on campus, they meet regularly with current 5 Strong scholars already on campus and are encouraged to get involved.

RELATED: Perilous times for black colleges

Since the launch of 5 Strong in 2015 at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida, Langston University in Oklahoma, the University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff, and Alabama A&M, five additional colleges have joined the effort. They include Fort Valley State, Benedict College in South Carolina, Alabama State, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and Fisk in Nashville.

“The most exciting thing about this year is our first cohort will be returning as seniors and graduating in spring of 2020,” Ragland said.

Drew Ragland, founder of the 5 Strong Scholarship Foundation, poses with students on the campus of Bethune-Cookman University. CONTRIBUTED

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Except for six who got homesick and dropped out, the students do well. More than 80% of 5 Strong students have remained in the program. The remaining 14 will graduate this year.

Interested students can apply at now through Dec. 1 for 40 available slots. Any HBCU with full tuition scholarships in place or that would like to create one may also join the effort.

Caleb Franklin, one of three boys in his family attending college, including a twin brother who is at Howard University, said he would’ve gone to college without 5 Strong’s help, but having his tuition covered by the organization lessened the burden on him and his parents big-time.

“I appreciate the support of the students and the organization,” he said.

Ragland said that two things are extremely important to a student in any college — funding and support.

“If a student has both of those,” he said, “they can be very successful.”

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