Morehouse Commencement Speaker Pays Off Entire Class Of 2019's Student Debt

by Julie Scagell
Marcus Ingram/Getty

The debt is estimated around $40 million

Billionaire Robert F. Smith, an entrepreneur and founder of the private equity firm, Vista Equity Partners, made a major announcement during his commencement speech at Morehouse College over the weekend and changed 400 lives in the process. Not only did the honorary doctorate announce a $1.5 million gift to the school, but he also promised to pay off the entire graduating classes’ student loan debt.

The philanthropist and father-of-five made the surprise announcement on Sunday during their graduation ceremony, stating his family would be providing a grant to erase the student debt of the entire Class of 2019.

“This is my class,” he said, “and I know my class will pay this forward.” Smith has generously donated to his alma mater, Cornell University, as well as to various cancer research institutions and the arts.

Morehouse College, a private, all-male, historically black college in Atlanta delivered an honorary doctorate to the businessman before he made the astounding announcement. When he said the words, the crowd of students, parents, and teachers erupted, shouting “MVP” and cheering wildly.

“On behalf of the eight generations of my family that have been in this country, we’re going to put a little fuel in your bus. This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans,” Smith said. “I know my class will make sure they pay this forward … and let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward because we are enough to take care of our own community.” Smith was ranked by “Forbes” as the 163rd richest person in America in 2018.

To put the student loan crisis into perspective, 69 percent of college students took out student loans in 2019 and graduated with an average debt of $29,800, which will result in an average monthly payment of $393. Fourteen percent of their parents took out an average of $35,600 in federal Parent PLUS loans. Americans currently owe over $1.56 trillion in student loan debt.

Smith said being on the bus toward success is the right start but not nearly enough to get them where they want to be as people and in business. “You want to own it, you want to drive it, and you want to pick up as many people as you can along the way.”

“When he said those words … all my classmates’ mouths dropped open. We were speechless,” graduate Kamal Medlock told NPR. “We were shocked…He wants us to start to gift it, and I think that’s an amazing thing because it really shows black men taking care of other black men,” he said.

The estimated amount Smith will donate to eliminate the student’s debt is around $40 million. “My story would only be possible in America, and it is incumbent on all of us to pay this inheritance forward,” Smith continued. To pay forward that sort of gift to hundreds of strangers is not only selfless, but it’s also a testament to his belief in humanity and our future generations.