Billionaire Commencement Speaker Shocks Grads With Promise To Pay Off Student Loans

A billionaire philanthropist and technology investor told the graduating class of Morehouse College that he would wipe out the student debt of the entire graduating class, estimated to be around $40 million, according to Time

Robert F. Smith, this year’s commencement speaker, made the announcement Sunday morning while addressing nearly 400 graduating seniors of the all-male historically black college in Atlanta. Smith is the Founder and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, a private equity firm that invests in software, data, and technology-driven companies. -Time

"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," said Smith, adding "This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans." 

Stunned students looked around in disbelief upon the announcement, before breaking into wild applause. Morehouse said it is the single largest give to the university. 

Smith - who received an honorary doctorate from Morehouse as part of the ceremony, had already announced a gift of $1.5 million to the college. He said he expected the graduates to "pay it forward," and said he hoped that "every class has the same opportunity going forward."

In the weeks before graduating from Morehouse on Sunday, 22-year-old finance major Aaron Mitchum drew up a spreadsheet to calculate how long it would take him to pay back his $200,000 in student loans — 25 years at half his monthly salary, per his calculations.

In an instant, that number vanished. Mitchum, sitting in the crowd, wept.

“I can delete that spreadsheet,” he said in an interview after the commencement. “I don’t have to live off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I was shocked. My heart dropped. We all cried. In the moment it was like a burden had been taken off.” -Time

" It takes a village," said the 76-year-old grandmother of Aaron Mitchum, adding "It now means he can start paying it forward and start closing this gap a lot sooner, giving back to the college and thinking about a succession plan" for his younger siblings. 

College president David A. Thomas said the gift would have a massive effect on the graduates' lives. 

"Many of my students are interested in going into teaching, for example, but leave with an amount of student debt that makes that untenable," said Thomas. "In some ways, it was a liberation gift for these young men that just opened up their choices."