Billionaire stuns 2019 Morehouse College graduates, pledges to pay off student loans

Robert F. Smith, chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners receives an honorary doctorate from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga., on Sunday May 19, 2019. | Facebook
Nearly 400 graduates of Morehouse College, America’s only all-male historically black college, got welcome news on Sunday when commencement speaker and billionaire investor Robert F. Smith announced his family would pay off their student loans.

"I know my class will make sure they pay this forward," Smith told the students. "[L]et's make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward because we are enough to take care of our own community."

The gift from the chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners and the richest black man in America is estimated to be worth $40 million. Prior to making the grant announcement, he had also made a $1.5 million gift to the school to be used for scholarships and the development of a new park, Forbes said. Morehouse College said Smith’s gift on Sunday was the biggest single gift in the school’s history.

Surprised graduates at the Atlanta college recalled to The New York Times how the Smith’s generosity hit them.

“We’re all in robes, hot, the sun was beaming on us,” Ernest Holmes, who said he had about $10,000 in loans that his parents were going to tackle said. “We’re holding our papers up, trying to block the sun out of our eyes. Everyone jumped up, cheered. People were crying. It was just the most amazing thing.”

Holmes is expected to start work as a software engineer for Google in Mountain View, California.

Brandon Manor who plans to attend medical school declared it, “a blessing, a blessing!”

“Now all of a sudden, I can look at schools I might not have considered, because I am not applying with about $100,000 in undergraduate loans,” he said.

Dwytt Lewis, 21, who just graduated from Morehouse with a degree in business administration, danced his way across the graduation stage after learning his more than $150,000 debt was just wiped away CBS News said.

"Just imagine the weight lifted off your shoulders when you have a clean slate coming out of college," Lewis who was once homeless told the network. "It's just an overwhelming feeling, in a good way. I'm so motivated to go change the world."

Morehouse’s president, David A. Thomas, told The New York Times that he would meet with Mr. Smith to work out the details of the grant.

“This was a liberation gift, meaning this frees these young men from having to make their career decisions based on their debt,” Thomas said. “This allows them to pursue what they are passionate about.”

John Silvanus Wilson Jr., a Morehouse alumnus who was the college’s president from 2013 to 2017, called Smith’s gift “an extraordinary investment” and noted that his decision to make it was “simply an act of high grace.”

“Mr. Smith is a wise investor, and based on how he made the announcement, challenging them to ‘pay it forward,’ it sounded to me as if he wants the return on this particular investment to be tabulated by the giving and good these young men show others throughout their lives,” Wilson, who was the executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities for part of the Obama administration, told The New York Times.

“And, ideally, perhaps a central element of that return will become apparent when this Class of 2019, along with scores of other Morehouse alumni, make their own financial investments in Morehouse like never before,” he said.

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