Students in the Morehouse College’s class of 2019 walked away from their commencement ceremony on Sunday with much more than a pep talk — they walked away free of college debt.
Billionaire tech investor Robert F. Smith, who gave the keynote speech, announced that he and his family are setting up a grant to pay off the student loans of nearly 400 graduates at the historically black, all-male college in Atlanta, according to the Associated Press.
The class’s debt is estimated at up to $40 million dollars.
“On behalf of the eight generations of my family that have been in this country, we’re gonna put a little fuel in your bus,” said Smith, who also received an honorary doctorate from the school during the ceremony. Smith’s student loan grant will be the single largest gift to the school and comes in addition to the $1.5 million he donated to the school before his speech.
The billionaire philanthropist said that he hopes grant recipients have the opportunity to “pay it forward” in the future.
Smith, the founder and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, a private equity firm that invests in software, data, and technology-driven companies, is the richest black person in the United States.
Students and commencement guests cheered for Smith at the school, where graduates have an average of $30,000 to $40,000 in student loan debt.
Research showed that the average student who graduated in the US in 2016 had $37,172 in student loan debt.
In the US, 70% of students graduate college with significant student loan debt, and over 44 million Americans collectively hold nearly $1.5 trillion in student debt. Student loans weigh the heaviest on black and Hispanic students, who are more likely to take on debt for higher education and have a harder time paying it off. Graduates in debt often take lower-paying, and lower-skilled jobs just to pay their bills on time, and miss out on the benefits that come with a college degree.
Morehouse College president David A. Thomas told the Associated Press that Smith’s gift will liberate the young men of the graduating class and open up their choices.
While people applauded Smith on social media, some criticized the US’ expensive higher education system. Others called on billionaires to actively help pay student loan debt on a consistent basis.
I'm so so happy for those Morehouse grads and what a wonderful dude to wipe out their debt, but in our joy let's please also remember that the system is horrible and predatory, they shouldn't have had those massive debts to begin with, and it is time to burn it all to the ground.— Lisa Lucas (@likaluca) May 20, 2019
This is great! Now if only there was some sort of government policy that could guarantee billionaires contributing to a collective pool of money on an annual basis, and then have that pool of money be used to make sure no student ever has college debt... https://t.co/2nkauCoDqr— David Sirota (@davidsirota) May 19, 2019
This Morehouse news makes me want to cry. Just imagine what these men — these black men — will accomplish without the weight of student loan debt. Just imagine.— Victoria M. Walker (@vikkie) May 19, 2019
Morehouse College also awarded an honorary doctorate to actress Angela Bassett on Sunday during the commencement ceremony, for her leadership service and excellence that “set the bar high for women in Hollywood,” according to Essence.