Morehouse College’s graduating class of 2019 received an unexpected and, for some, life-changing gift at Sunday’s commencement ceremony. Billionaire businessman Robert F. Smith, the commencement speaker, shocked the crowd by announcing his plan to pay off all the class’s student loans—the largest gift in the school’s history.
The students graduate with an average debt of between $30,000 and $40,000 dollars, according to Terrance L. Dixon, vice president of enrollment management at Morehouse. That puts the total bill for Morehouse’s 396 grads at more than $10 million. Smith, the founder of venture capital firm Vista Equity Partners, ranks in the top 500 wealthiest men in the United States. His gift to the historically black, all-male college had an important condition.
“I know my class will make sure they pay this forward,” Smith said.
One graduate received more grace than most others. Finance major Aaron Mitchom faced a massive $200,000 debt that he estimated would take 25 years to pay off. But with one sentence, that debt disappeared.
“I don’t have to live off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” Mitchom said. “I was shocked. My heart dropped. We all cried. In the moment it was like a burden had been taken off.”
Critics cautioned students about making others’ charity their debt payoff plan.
“A gift like this can make people believe that billionaires are taking care of our problems, and distract us from the ways in which others in finance are working to cause problems like student debt, or the subprime crisis, on an epically greater scale than this gift,” Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All, told The New York Times.
Morehouse was also in the news last month when the school announced it would open admission to female students who identify as men starting in 2020. —Kyle Ziemnick