Morehouse College seniors got a surprise Sunday when billionaire investor Robert F. Smith announced during his commencement speech that he would pay off the student loan debt for the historically black college’s graduating class.
“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,” he told the newly minted graduates in Atlanta before saying his family was creating a grant to eliminate their student loans.
The announcement was met with a standing ovation and chants of “MVP!”
“Now, I know my class will make sure they pay this forward,” he continued. “I want my class to look at these (alumni) – these beautiful Morehouse brothers – and let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward because we are enough to take care of our own community. We are enough to ensure we have all the opportunities of the American dream.”
The exact amount to be covered for the 396 students is still being calculated, school President David Thomas told CNN on Monday, but the sum will likely be in the tens of millions of dollars. Thomas called Smith’s gesture “a liberation gift.”
“When you have to service debt, the choices about what you can go do in the world are constrained,” he said. “(Smith’s gift) gives them the liberty to follow their dreams, their passions.”
Students say they’re overwhelmed with gratitude
Students couldn’t believe their ears when Smith made the announcement, graduates of the all-men’s college told CNN.
“We’re looking at each other like, ‘Is he being serious?’ That’s a lot of money,” salutatorian Robert James, 21, said.
Jonathan Epps, 22, said Sunday afternoon he still hadn’t fully grasped the magnitude of the “tremendous blessing,” which he called the kindest, most generous thing he’d ever witnessed.
“It’ll sink in as the years go on. I know that for a fact,” he said. “I still don’t really have words. … It makes a great day just that much better.”
Epps said he has about $35,000 in student loan debt that his parents in Pleasanton, California, had pledged to help him pay off. He couldn’t wait to break the news to them, he said.
A classmate, Elijah Nesly Dormeus, is the first of nine kids to graduate college. His mother made many sacrifices working minimum-wage jobs to provide for him and his eight siblings after Dormeus’ father died when he was 5.
In addition to the 22-year-old New Yorker’s own $90,000 debt, he said his mother took out a loan to help get him through school.
“All her serving, all her giving was not in vain,” Dormeus said when asked what Smith’s gift meant to his family.
Art major Charles Releford III also has numerous siblings, and his mother, Tonga, wants them all to be part of the “Spelhouse family,” meaning they hope to attend Morehouse or the nearby all-women’s Spelman College.
“For me, the parent of four, it opened up so many opportunities for the younger siblings of the Releford family,” she said.
Charles Releford said he’d accumulated about $70,000 in loan debt during his time at Morehouse, and though the aspiring illustrator doesn’t have a job lined up, he was already thinking about how he would pay back the money.
After Smith’s announcement, though, “I’m really excited to see where my life can go now because all different avenues are open now so I’m not held down. There’s no burden, student loans – I’m debt-free,” Releford said.
Smith has made many other charitable donations
The students’ benefactor also received an honorary degree Sunday, along with actor Angela Bassett and psychologist Edmund Gordon.