Commencement Speaker Stuns Graduating Class With Pledge to Pay Off Their Student Loans

The 2019 graduating class of Morehouse College got the surprise of a lifetime Sunday when their commencement speaker, billionaire technology investor Robert F. Smith, announced he was paying off student loans for the entire class.

“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,” Smith told the crowd. “This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”

He told the students to “pay it forward” by going out into the world and making a difference in the lives of others.

“Because we are enough to take care of our own community. We are enough to ensure that we have all the opportunities of the American dream. And we will show it to each other through our actions and through our words and through our deeds.”

The gift — worth an estimated $40 million — is the largest Morehouse has ever seen. It comes on top of a $1.5 million donation to the school.

The gift of a lifetime

If you’re wondering just how significant Smith’s contribution is, one Morehouse finance major has already done the math. Before the commencement address, Aaron Mitchom compiled a spreadsheet showing it would take 25 years at half his salary to pay off his $200,000 loan.

“I can delete that spreadsheet,” he told the Los Angeles Times after the speech.

Who is Robert F. Smith?

The Times has a profile on the now famous philanthropist, who many had not heard of before Sunday. The 56-year-old is the founder and chief executive of private equity firm Vista Equity Partners, which sells software and technology companies and manages $46 billion in investments. He is the country's richest African American.

Morehouse College is an all-male, historically black liberal arts college in Atlanta, Georgia. Its alumni include Martin Luther King Jr. and filmmaker Spike Lee.