Austin billionaire Robert F. Smith didn't just make good on his promise to pay off the Morehouse College graduating class of 2019's student loan debt. Now he's giving their parents a hand up, too.
During his May 19 commencement address at the historically black, all-male college in Atlanta, Smith surprised graduates with news he would clear their debts, which at the time was estimated at roughly $40 million.
"On behalf of the eight generations of my family who have been in this country, we're going to put a little fuel in your bus," Smith said in the now viral video. "My family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans."
What the lucky graduates didn't know then was on September 20, Smith would extend that offer to their parents' educational loans as well.
Smith's $34 million gift, made along with his San Francisco-based firm Vista Equity Partners and his family, will now benefit more than 400 students, parents, and guardians. The Morehouse Student Success Program, "a scholarship, loan debt, research, and educational initiative," will solicit donations going forward that will specifically go toward reducing and eliminating student loan debt.
“This liberation gift from Robert Smith — the first of its kind to be announced at a graduation in higher education — will be life-changing for our new Morehouse Men and their families,” David A. Thomas, president of Morehouse College, says in a release. “It is our hope that our graduates will use their newfound financial freedom to pursue their career goals, to lead and serve the community, and to remember the spirit of the gift given to them by paying it forward to support the education of future classes of Morehouse Men.”
The gift from Smith, who is worth an estimated $5 billion, according to Forbes, barely makes a dent in total student loan debt nationwide, but taking such a huge burden away can change the course of a family's future, the college notes.
"America’s student loan debt — now more than $1.5 trillion, according to the U.S. Department of Education (more than the nation’s $1.3 trillion in auto loan debt) — can exacerbate the wealth gap that exists between black families facing generational poverty and other groups," the Morehouse release states. "Black households nationally have the lowest median net worth, lagging behind Asian, white, and Latin Americans respectively, according to the U.S. Census. Economic status can impact loan repayments."
Smith's donation is more than just a gift, it's an investment, he said in May.
"This is my class, 2019," he said. "Now I know my class will make sure they pay this forward. And I want my class to look at these alumni, these beautiful Morehouse brothers, and let's make sure every class has the same opportunity moving forward."