Billionaire Robert F. Smith announces he’ll pay entire Morehouse graduating class’ debt


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Robert F. Smith is one of the richest men in the world. He founded the investment firm Vista Equity Partners, one of the best-performing private equity firms. Wikipedia says Mr. Smith grew up middle-class. He attended two very prestigious schools, Cornell and Columbia School of Business but his biggest asset was his business acumen. Why am I giving you a brief history of the successful business man? Because he did something this weekend that changed the course of close to 400 men’s lives. While giving the commencement address at the all-male, historically black university, Morehouse College, over the weekend, Mr. Smith changed the lives of the 2019 graduating class.

Billionaire Robert F. Smith, who received an honorary doctorate at Morehouse College’s Sunday morning graduation exercises, had already announced a $1.5 million gift to the school.

But during his remarks in front of the nearly 400 graduating seniors, the technology investor and philanthropist surprised nearly everyone by announcing that his family was providing a grant to eliminate the student debt of the entire Class of 2019.

“This is my class,” he said, “and I know my class will pay this forward.”

The announcement came as a surprise to Smith’s staff and to the staff at Morehouse, and elicited the biggest cheers of the morning.

The gift has been estimated to be worth up to $40 million.

Aileen Dodd, spokesperson for Morehouse College, said the gift is the biggest single gift in the school’s history.

In his commencement address, Smith said being on the bus toward success isn’t enough. “You want to own it, you want to drive it, and you want to pick up as many people as you can along the way.”

He charged the Class of 2019 with doing its part to improve the lives of black America. “I’m putting some fuel into your bus,“ he said. “I’m counting on you to load up that bus.”

[From The Atlanta Journal-Constitution]

This is the definition of putting your money where your mouth is. Mr. Smith told these accomplished young men to pay it forward and make the world better for black Americans. And then he made it possible for them by eliminating all of their school debt. This isn’t the first time he’s done something like this either. In 2016, Smith donated $50M to Cornell to support “bimolecular engineering and African-American and female students at Cornell University’s College of Engineering.”

I have not heard the full speech, just excerpts, but between the way he phrased it and the surprise of his own staff, part of me wonders if he thought of this on the spot. I know the joke has been made repeatedly but seriously, I would not want to be next year’s commencement speaker.

Here is a clip of his announcement. You can hear how it takes the class a moment to figure it out. The applause starts strong but grows as the realization comes over them. I imagine it will take the graduates a little while for this to sink in:

Angela Basset was the other commencement speaker at the graduation.
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76 Responses to “Billionaire Robert F. Smith announces he’ll pay entire Morehouse graduating class’ debt”

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  1. Scal says:

    What a nice and charitable gesture! It’s awesome!

    And of course there were the ‘what aboutism’ people complaining yesterday that it wasn’t fair to students on scholarship or previous students. ACan’t we just appreciate when someone does something good?

    • manda says:

      Omg, that is so annoying. So people who didn’t have to pay for school because someone else paid for it were upset that OTHER people had their school paid for? I mean that is first class selfishness. They are in the exact same position: debt free!!! I mean, do people say it’s unfair when they’ve lost the lottery? That is essentially what this was, a very lucky chance. This was such an amazing and generous thing for this man to do. I have said this in other places but will say it again, I have often fantasized about being able to do something just like that!

    • Christin says:

      This reminds me of an example I’ve heard at work regarding how you cannot make everyone happy. You could go to a street corner and hand out twenty dollar bills and at least one person would complain why it wasn’t a hundred dollar bill.

  2. runcmc says:

    WOW. Just wow. This is one of the most incredible and selfless things I’ve ever seen. I’m angry that it makes such a difference (why is student loan debt so high and crippling?!?!) but I am so, so happy for these guys that they received such a meaningful and life-changing gift.

  3. LoonyTunes says:

    Life changing for those students. Poor students are financially crippled (sometimes for life) by student loans.

  4. Aims says:

    I think that’s amazing. I feel that gift is far more beneficial and it goes straight to the right place. I think it’s insane that you do everything right. Taking school seriously, wanting a better future, then leaving school with debt up to your eyeballs. There’s something really wrong with that.

  5. Kay says:

    I am speechless! I can’t imagine how inspired and empowered those men must feel right now.

  6. tempest prognosticator says:

    I’m not crying, you’re crying!

    I hope Angela didn’t have to follow his speech.

  7. IlsaLund says:

    What a great blessing for those students. Mr. Smith is definitely paying it forward. I think it’s criminal how students are hobbled with so much students loan debt.

    • Onerous says:

      YES!

      This was an incredible act of generosity, but the amount he’s paying averages out to $133,000 of debt PER STUDENT! How are we treating people like this!? It IS criminal, IMO. We are in the state we’re in because of how much our education system has devolved. A more educated population (not just college, but also trades), would not elect someone like Trump!

      • historybuff says:

        To be fair, college costs and student-loan amounts have been increasing dramatically long before Trump entered the political arena. There is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that it was the government decision to back student loans that contributed to the tuition increases. Colleges have also been adding a lot of non-academic stuff, that students pay for — admin costs have skyrocketed, for example.

        My youngest starts college in the fall. He’s worked 20 hours a week as a junior and senior in high school, found a couple of scholarships, and is planning to work two jobs this summer. He hopes to find work when he goes to college and expects to graduate with less than $20,000 of debt.

        People telling students that amassing 100grand of debt is okay is what’s criminal.

      • Yup, Me says:

        The more educated population (and particularly the more educated African American population) did not elect Trump. Nor did they elect the governors of Georgia or Alabama.

      • onerous says:

        @historybuff

        A. I clearly stated “that we’re in this state because of how much our educational system has devolved.” Which indicates that I’m speaking about the electorate – people over 18 years old – who have suffered because of cuts to education funding. You should glean from this that I was obviously not blaming anything on the current administration.
        B. I never said anything about Trump, and
        C. I will never ever feel the need “to be fair” towards Trump on anything at all, ever.

      • historybuff says:

        I misread your post. I’m sorry. I guess I don’t understand what you mean when you say that the educational system has devolved.

        I worry about reliance on underpaid adjunct professors, increases in administrative costs, and undisciplined/unethical lending arrangments. Frankly, the fact that a lot of college grads can’t get work that actually requires a degree is also an issue. Maybe we need to distinguish our HS graduates in a way that they can get more than a McJob.

  8. V says:

    Amazing! I am happy for the students and wish other billionaires would do the same for people who still paying student loans who work in public services and have serious hardships. I am still paying and aim to pay it off before I die. If one day I do become a billionaire, I would find a way to invest and do this: pay off student loan for students.

  9. Rhys says:

    This just underlines that there is no reason why such a rich and prosperous country like the US won’t make education (and healthcare) free for its citizens. Giving every person a fair chance to succeed in life is the only reasonable way of thinking about it. Instead of relying on a generosity by a forward thinking person, these basic things should be available to all people via taxes. 57% of our taxes goes to the national defense (guess if anyone is making profit off of it) and only 2% towards education. It’s mind boggling.

    • Billbop says:

      Rhys, if college education were free it wouldn’t mean anything. A college degree would be as exciting as a high school degree.. Some countries where it is free, people became permanent students…

      Not to mention if everyone goes to college, what happens to people doing trades, like plumbing, electrical, construction? These are all profitable and much needed careers that don’t need a college degree.

      And how will we pay for free college? Increase taxes. So it isn’t “free”, it is tax funded. By middle-class people like me who paid for our own college by getting a job and working hard.

      The real question is why is college so expensive? It is raising astronomically while graduating kids who aren’t working. Fix that problem!

      Tax-funded is not free. The government does not print out its own money, it steals it from the working class.

      • Sally says:

        @ Billbop I’d rather have my hard earned money go towards making college free than to fund the waste of the DOD. This attitude that I’d paid my share, so you also have to pays yours is similar to those who complain about this dude paying the loans of these young people. And that thing about people becoming permanent students is an utter nonsense.

      • ByTheSea says:

        Oh boo hoo! People will continue to go into the trades even if there is free college, because some people simply don’t like school or aren’t good students or just don’t want to do it and prefer a trade. That isn’t going to change. But people shouldn’t be crippled by debt for wanting to get an education. And because it’s so expensive, the higher paying careers have a severe diversity problem.

      • OriginalLala says:

        @Billbop that’s not how subsidized higher-ed works. The entrance requirements are very high in places where tuition is free, so no, university degrees don’t become “like HS degrees”.

        and sorry, I’d rather my taxes are higher and pay for healthcare and education than pay for a huge military industrial complex, and corporate greed.

      • onerous says:

        @Billbop – So many straw men, so little time!

        Please do some research – in countries where college is free or substantially affordable, the poverty rate goes down dramatically, domestic violence rates go down, crime, unemployment and on and on. Business and home ownership increase. A better educated population would promote more equity between genders.

        I own a construction company – we ALREADY can’t find employees. If you look at countries with “free” college, they almost always include a robust apprenticeship program for various trades. This is ESSENTIAL! But those entering the trades also need to learn more than just their chosen skill. Time and money management, general business practices, sales and more – these should all be part of any apprenticeship.

        And, no, I’m sorry, but “free college” would not be paid for by the truly middle class (Those earning between $45,000 – $130,000 per year.) I don’t know where these ideas come from. Does a portion of our taxes go to pay for education? Absolutely. Can I think of any better place for them to be spent? Not at all. Even a small diversion of funds from our military spending would allow for affordable post secondary education.

      • SK2 says:

        @Billbop – I don’t think that’s true. Italy does not have free university but fees are very low ( and on a scale depending on your families income), so a typical student might pay a few thousand euros per year of their degree. Education is still highly valued and because university entrance criteria is at a high standard only students that are academically suitable enter university

      • Nina says:

        I feel offended by you saying my degree will mean nothing. I live in a country where university education usually has a small administrative fee and would probably be considered free. It’s funded by taxes mostly. I put in hard work to get good grades, it’s not a spring break trip. I have a job to support myself. I’m not made for trades and I love what I study. I’m thankful it is made possible I can attend university and I will not be crippled by student loans and can pay my taxes with a job so the students after me will be able to attend.

        And about trades: In Germany trades are booming. Not every field, but many. You’ll wait months for non urgent work around the house.

      • Valois says:

        You don’t sound like you’ve ever spent any significant amount of time in the countries you’re talking about where “degrees mean nothing”.

    • historybuff says:

      Is that 2% of the total American budget, or just the federal end of things? Most public education is state-sponsored,

    • Suchhandsome says:

      Rhys, just 10% of your defence budget is enough to make college free for everyone. The US is basically run by the military industrial complex, a very profitable sector for a small number of people.

  10. Simon the Bird says:

    Jeff Bezos has enough money to buy every homeless person in America a house and still have more than 19 billion dollars left over.

    Let that sink in.

  11. Sue Denim says:

    Here’s the thing tho — generous as it was, and it was, if guys like this paid the level of taxes the rest of us do, we wouldn’t have to rely on their philanthropy, we could instead rely on public policy, like in a true democracy. I thought that when this was announced, then the NYT wrote this, hope it’s ok to post — don’t mean to hijack the thread, but just to suggest I so wish we had fairer policies…

    https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/20/opinion/morehouse-college-debt.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage

    • Elkie says:

      On the one hand, you are absolutely correct. On the other hand, there is ZERO chance with this current adminstration that if he (and others like him) had paid $40 million extra in taxes it would be spent on education.

      Nice gesture all the same.

    • Rhys says:

      The bigger problem besides not paying enough taxes is that the taxes are redistributed in such a way that education gets close to nothing. It’s up to the people and then the government to finally make changes.

    • historybuff says:

      A niggling point, but a “true democracy” does not necessarily mean replacing private philanthropy with public policy, as you intimated.

      • Sue Denim says:

        That’s actually not what I said — philanthropy can certainly co-exist w sound public policy, but the latter cannot exist if some — esp our biggest earners — don’t pay their fair share, at least not if we’re to call what we have a democracy…

  12. BearcatLawyer says:

    400 graduates…possibly up to $40 million in debt. Or up to $100,000/grad.

    That is the real story. Without this gift, many of these students would be in repayment hell for years and unable to do things like save for retirement or attend graduate school. Millions of students without benefactors are living this reality and will be for decades.

    While ignorance is more expensive than education, something has to change. This is simply unsustainable.

    • Megan says:

      I assume the $40 million calculates the value of the interest students would have paid. The fact that 400 students would ultimately pay $40 million for an education makes me sick. The system is so g-damn broken.

    • Christin says:

      Completely agree that this is unsustainable.

      Apparently some employers are offering student loan debt pay-downs as a benefit (in lieu of a 401k matching percentage).

      I think it’s sad that a graduate has to begin their career with such a financial burden that delays saving for retirement or paying down a mortgage. Every year matters for both of those financial goals.

  13. Chica71 says:

    Sorry but if this is not a wake up call that a something is seriously wrong in America, I don’t know what is. One small HBCU graduating class with student debt of 40 million wiped out by one person disposal income. Wage, class and racial inequalities is real.

  14. BlueSky says:

    I remember being in debt after college and how long it took to pay that off. What a blessing for these young men!

  15. Lucy2 says:

    That is truly amazing! It shouldn’t be necessary, college costs and loans are out of control, but this is an amazing opportunity for these students- both and wiping out their dirt and giving them a good start to their professional lives, but also as setting a great example for them to pay it forward.

  16. Becks1 says:

    This is incredible. These men aren’t starting out already behind. they’ll be able to do things like a buy a house sooner (if they want), or start a business with loans since they don’t have SLs to worry about, or go to grad school – law, medical, etc – because they don’t have undergraduate student loans so they have more ability to take out additional loans for grad school. (I know that seems like a weird thing to say – hey guys! take out more loans! but if you have 100k in undergraduate debt, and you want to go to med school, you may defer for a year or two to start making a few payments, or even longer, and now you don’t have to).

    Or, all my other ideas aside, they can also start working and saving and accumulating wealth that much sooner. This is such a tremendous gift.
    (can you tell I have significant SL debt lol)

  17. al says:

    I totally agree that this is super generous and an amazing opportunity for these grads to leave school debt free. However, I am torn about feeling sorry for all of these young grads with massive amounts of loans. Moorehouse is a private and expensive university. You don’t have to go to a private and expensive university to get a good education. There are public universities in every state that are affordable. People can also do their first two years at a community college and then transfer to a university. There is no reason to have such massive debt. Students take out loans (especially private bank loans) above and beyond what they need for tuition and books. I went to an affordable public university for undergrad and law school and did not take out massive loans. My parents did not pay for it. I took out just enough to cover tuition. I worked part time through undergrad and worked full time while I went to law school part time. I spent 9 years in college and am not crippled with debt. My loans are manageable. If you take the money out… expect to have to pay it back. It is that simple.

    • historybuff says:

      Good for you. A young co-worker of mine worked part-time as she went to school full-time and a half, amassing a bachelor’s degree in 2 years. Her father gave her half of his GI benefit, earned after serving for 30 years. Now she’s in law school, working part-time to limit her debt load, but she expects to be able to repay it within a few years and, since she’s not yet 21, will have plenty of time to focus on her career before she needs to make a decision about having a family (She’s engaged so it’s on her mind).

    • lucy2 says:

      Looks like their tuition is about $27,000 for the year. It’s expensive, but less than a lot of other places still. I went out of state to a state university, that tuition is approaching $35k now. Craziness.

      Community college is an excellent option for many, especially those looking to get some core classes out of the way to then begin focusing on their major. Possibly some of these young men did take that route and finished their degrees at Morehouse.
      My major required 5 years, all in the program, so I didn’t have the community college option. I did do a few summer courses at mine though, to knock out some non-major course work, but I was lucky to be able to do that.

  18. Ninks says:

    It’s an incredible gesture. What a wonderful thing to do.

    But $40 million is an insane amount of money. I can’t believe how much money it costs to attend college in the US. Between that and the stories about celebrities bribing colleges to get their kids into them, it seems like the American third level system is fucked up. I never realised that before.

  19. Aang says:

    This isn’t amazing, this is a disgusting example of how capitalism makes the working class grateful for the crumbs benevolently dropped by billionaires. You don’t become a billionaire without exploiting the labour of untold number of workers. If the system worked properly billionaires wouldn’t exist and college would be affordable for everyone.

    • Jenns says:

      THIS. ALL OF THIS.

      I find this story infuriating. It kind of reminds me when I see a story on the news about a kid selling lemonade to pay for his mom’s cancer treatment. Those are not cute stories. Those are horror stories.

    • JaneDoesWork says:

      EXACTLY. This man bought my husband’s company and immediately a lot of people (many of them parents) were let go without notice and the workplace became completely toxic. He has all that disposable income for a reason. Generosity from billionaires is not an adequate solution for student debt.

    • Simon the Bird says:

      THIS

    • Rhys says:

      Not to mention this is an ALL male school. The males had their student debt taken care of and the sisters next door got left out. And don’t start with the “let’s celebrate a nice gesture without complaining.” It is a broken system.

      • ME says:

        Why do we need all male schools anyways? The real world isn’t that way so why do males or females need to be segregated in school?

    • Ann says:

      THANK YOU! I agree that this is extremely generous but it’s still covering up so many problems that go unaddressed year after year. A college education shouldn’t cost 100k. Hell, it shouldn’t cost anything beyond a 4 figure # for the vast majority of colleges. Jeff Bezos could afford to pay off all the student loan debt and still be incredibly wealthy but he’s not going to. All these stories do for me is shine a glaring light on how insidious wealth hording is and yet another reminder that Libertanianism does not work.

    • 2lazy4username says:

      The system IS broken and the disparities that exist in society are depressing. There was an economic study done on inequality, which determines that it is “not the level of inequality that matters for growth so much as the reason that inequality happened in the first place,” which I think speaks to your point.

      However, I don’t think the way it SHOULD be should wipe out good deeds in the now. There does exist charitable billionaires who do great things for society, leveraging their wealth. While I wholly understand and respsect your point of view, in this case, I choose to see this as a good thing.

    • Suchhandsome says:

      I totally agree with you, Aang. And he gets a nice tax deduction with these gifts. People like Mike Bloomberg, a philanthropy-focused billionaire himself, agree in a way. See Private Citizen Bloomberg on Philanthropy in NYT. Great article.

  20. Seraphina says:

    We need more people like this man and more news like this. Thank you for the pick me up :)

    • OriginalLala says:

      We need a huge revamp of society. Our system is broken.

      • Seraphina says:

        Yes I whole heartedly agree our system is broken. It needs to be unplugged and rebooted.

      • OriginalLala says:

        that’s a great way of putting it Seraphina – it does need to be unplugged and rebooted!

  21. JaneDoesWork says:

    So while this is awesome and beautifully generous …

    a. students cannot rely that a billionaire is going to bail them out. Again, super nice, but one kid actually transferred out of Morehouse because he was drowning in debt and couldn’t afford it. He just dug himself an even bigger hole because obviously he didn’t know someone was going to bail him out. This is like a massive gofundme, its not a system young people can or should rely on.
    B. this billionaire acquired my husband’s company and immediately the culture became toxic and a lot of people were let go. My husband had been working there for 6 six years with no intention of leaving and found a new job before he could be let go to avoid putting us in a bad financial position. so while this was extremely generous, it doesn’t change the fact that one reason he has a lot of extra money is because of the way he does business.

    • ME says:

      I also wonder about the students who worked crazy hours and managed to graduate with almost no debt. LOL had they known everyone in the graduating class would have gotten their debt paid off upon graduation, they probably wouldn’t have had to stress so hard. Oh well…it’s still an amazing thing to do and this man didn’t have to donate a dollar if he didn’t want to.

    • Suchhandsome says:

      Thanks JaneDoesWork, for the story about your husband’s workplace. Smith is a financier, respected in the business world, and it’s probably like that Richard Gere character in pretty woman and like people like Mnuchin.

  22. Léna says:

    I’ll admit it’s great but it’s kind of sad IMO that you have to rely on rich to be able to survive in this country, not on your politics.
    To be honest, American culture is one of the most unequal and strange I’ve ever witnessed.

    • Suchhandsome says:

      Yes, even well-known billionaire Mike Bloomberg points out philanthropy is not and can’t be the answer as it’s “bupkis” compared to government budgets (even with all the billionaires added together) (see NYT article “Private Citizen Bloomberg on Philanthropy”). Yes, it sure helps out this graduating class but these donations shouldn’t make people lose sight of the need for policy reform.

  23. HeyThere! says:

    I am crying!! That is such an incredible gift to all the most deserving humans!!! I would have passed out and needed medical attention! LOL

    This is so motivating to me. I want to do good and change lives, obviously not on this scale of money but love can go a long way also.

  24. JRenee says:

    The enormity of this gift made me tear up!

  25. Mere says:

    I knew this name sounded familiar. I just looled him up the other day because he and his Playboy model wife own the house that Kylie Jenner is paying $450,000 a month to rent.

  26. Mar says:

    My husband and I stayed at the same hotel as him and his wife to be in Positano Italy a few years back, he was so polite and classy. I had no idea who he was at the time, but a week after my trip, I saw he had a 5 million dollar wedding at the highest point of Amalfi , in Ravello. Not too shabby …..

    • Suchhandsome says:

      He’s a very smart man, very well known in the financial and business world.

  27. Suchhandsome says:

    This is a fantastic gesture and wonderful news for those students.

    However, as Anand Giridharadas and others have noted, billionaires won’t save the world. Philanthropy is not the answer to the underlying issue: make education more affordable. How? It’s unrealistic? No, the US can have free higher ed for all by just cutting your defence budget by 10%, for example!!!

    Philanthropy can be wonderful (and offers great tax savings for some elite) but the underlying issue is usually structural. Also these gestures tend to appease the masses and make people lose sight of the need for structural changes, which typically DON’T benefit the elite.