Morehouse College’s Graduation Speaker Just Promised to Pay Off All of the Class’s Student Loans

“We all cried. In the moment it was like a burden had been taken off.”

Robert F. Smith, left, laughs with David Thomas, center, and actress Angela Bassett at Morehouse College.Bo Emerson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP

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The graduating seniors of Morehouse College, an all-male historically black college in Atlanta, Georgia, received a huge surprise at their commencement ceremony Sunday morning when speaker Robert F. Smith announced he would pay off all of their student loans. 

Smith, a billionaire who founded the investment firm Vista Equity Partners, said he would create a grant in his family’s name to eliminate the debt for nearly 400 graduating seniors. “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,” he said, to mounting cheers. A spokeswoman for Morehouse College told CNN that the grant would cover about $40 million worth of debt.

“When Dr. King said that the ‘arc of the moral universe bends toward justice,’ he wasn’t saying it bends on its own accord. It bends because we choose to put our shoulders into it together and push,” Smith, who had also pledged $1.5 million to the college, said at the ceremony

Loan forgiveness can make an especially big impact on black students, Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, pointed out in a tweet. According to a 2018 study, black students were 85 percent more likely to take on debt than white students. And that disparity continues to grow after college: White students pay down their debt by 10 percent a year compared to 4 percent for black students, contributing to a widening wealth gap. 

Smith has had a history of philanthropy, and is one of the largest private donors to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. In 2017, he signed up for the Giving Pledge, a campaign encouraging America’s wealthy to give away a majority of their money. He noted that he would give away half of his net worth to causes supporting “equality of opportunity for African Americans” and the environment. 

Students were overjoyed at the announcement about the gift, which was the single largest donation the school had ever received. “If I could do a backflip, I would. I am deeply ecstatic,” Elijah Dormeus, one of the graduating Morehouse students, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Another student told the AP that he had created a spreadsheet estimating it would take 25 years to pay off his student loans. “I can delete that spreadsheet,” said Aaron Mitchum, who majored in finance. “I don’t have to live off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I was shocked. My heart dropped. We all cried. In the moment it was like a burden had been taken off.”

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You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

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