Good Deeds

Unassuming Austin billionaire makes stunning promise to pay off student loans

Unassuming Austin billionaire makes stunning promise to students

Over the years, we've occasionally written about Austin billionaire Robert F. Smith, mainly in our coverage of the annual Forbes billionaires list.

Last year, Smith had a passing mention in a story about Richard Overton, then Austin's oldest living resident and the nation's oldest World War II veteran. In April 2018, the billionaire flew Overton to Washington, D.C. on his personal jet and arranged a private tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Smith reportedly donated $20 million to the museum, the second largest donation behind Oprah's $21 million.)

This weekend, however, the rather under-the-radar Smith had a very big moment in the spotlight. During his commencement address at Morehouse College, Atlanta's historically black, all-male university, the Austin billionaire surprised the graduates when he announced he was paying off their student debt. (Viewers can see the announcement around the 33:30 mark.)

"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."

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who first reported the news, places the value of the gift at $40 million. Smith, who founded the San Francisco-based Vista Equity Partners, is worth about $5 billion, according to Forbes.

As the crowd reacted to the announcement, jumping to their fee amid chants of "MVP! MVP!" Smith then called on the rest of the Morehouse alumni to consider donating.

Smith's act of generosity has been one of the top stories of the weekend, with the commencement video going viral and reported by everyone from the Washington Post and New York Times to NPR and CNN. 

The news also shines a spotlight on the increasing burden of student loans on young Americans. With college costs skyrocketing, over half of all students have taken out student loans in order to pay for higher education, according to the Federal Reserve. Thirty-eight percent of those with student loans also have additional forms of debt, either through credit cards, home equity lines, or something else. As of May 2018, the typical payment was between $200-$300 per month.

With numbers like these, it's clear that Smith's grant will undoubtedly change the lives of the 400 or so Morehouse graduates. But in watching his address, viewers get the sense that Smith clearly hopes to inspire a system of change, of extending a hand to the generation behind to pull them up.

"This is my class, 2019," Smith 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."

Morehouse College Robert F Smith billionaire
Robert Smith stunned the crowd when he made the announcement. Morehouse College/Twitter