The 396 young men began the day as students in caps and gowns, ready to graduate from Morehouse College — full of hope, but burdened in most cases with the debts that financed their education.
Then their commencement speaker went off-script with an extraordinary pledge: the newly minted alumni of the historically black college in Atlanta would go forth into the world student debt-free.
Robert F. Smith, the billionaire investor who founded Vista Equity Partners and became the richest black man in America, told the crowd that he and his family would pay off the entire graduating class’s student debt.
“We’re going to put a little fuel in your bus,” Smith said near the end of his address Sunday at the school’s 135th commencement service.
“This is my class, 2019,” he said, personally claiming the graduating seniors as his own. “And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”
It seemed to take a moment for the immensity of what he had promised to sink in. Then the senior class, all male and mostly African-American, erupted in glee.
“We’re all in robes, hot, the sun was beaming on us,” said Ernest Holmes, who said he had about $10,000 in loans. “Everyone jumped up, cheered. People were crying. It was just the most amazing thing.”
“A blessing, a blessing!” were the words Brandon Manor offered as he imagined for the first time what life would be like without student loans to repay.
Smith, known for a range of philanthropic donations including one to Morehouse earlier this year to finance scholarships, told the audience Sunday that his gift was meant to set an example of paying forward.
“Let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward, because we are enough to take care of our own community,” he said.
Many details remain unsettled, including how students will demonstrate the amount of debt they have and how it will be paid off. Also unclear is the total amount Smith will contribute. According to published figures, recent Morehouse classes have graduated with roughly $10 million in total debt.
2019 New York Times News Service