Generous billionaire tells graduates he will wipe out their student debt during ceremony

A billionaire technology investor and philanthropist says he will provide grants to wipe out the student debt of the entire graduating class at a college in Atlanta.

Robert F Smith, 2019's commencement speaker a Morehouse College, made the announcement on Sunday morning to nearly 400 graduating seniors of the all-male, historically black college.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported the pledge to eliminate the student debt for the class has been estimated at £31.4 million ($40 million).

The announcement surprised everyone. Credit: Morehouse College

Mr Smith is the Founder and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, a private equity firm that invests in software, data, and technology-driven companies.

“On behalf of the eight generations of my family that have been in this country, we're going to put a little fuel in your bus," Mr Smith told the graduates.

“Now, I've got the alumni over there and this is a challenge to you, alumni.

"This is my class - 2019, and my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”

Students celebrated as the news was announced. Credit: Morehouse College

The announcement drew stunned looks from staff and students alike, before the graduates broke into the biggest cheers of the morning and chanted “MVP” which stands for most valuable person, and is a term widely used in American sport.

Morehouse said it is the single largest gift to the college.

Smith, who received an honorary doctorate from Morehouse during the ceremony, had already announced a £1.2 million ($1.5 million) gift to the college.

Mr Smith said he expected the recipients to 'pay it forward'. Credit: Morehouse College

Mr Smith said he expected the recipients to "pay it forward" and said he hoped that "every class has the same opportunity going forward".

He concluded: “We are enough to ensure we have all the opportunities of the American dream, and we will show it to each other through our actions and through our words and through our deeds.

“So, Class of 2019, may the sun always shine upon you.

"May the wind always be at your back, and may God always hold you in the cradle of her hands.


Delighted graduates had extra reason to celebrate. Credit: Morehouse College

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

In an instant, that number vanished. Mr Mitchom, sitting in the crowd, wept.“I can delete that spreadsheet,” he said in an interview after the ceremony.

“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.”

His mother, Tina Mitchom, was also shocked. Eight family members, including Mr Mitchom’s 76-year-old grandmother, took turns over four years co-signing on the loans that got him across the finish line.

Graduates celebrated the announcement. Credit: Steve Schaefer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP

“It takes a village,” she said.

“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.”

Morehouse College president David A Thomas said the gift would have a profound effect on the students’ futures.

“Many of my students are interested in going into teaching, for example, but leave with an amount of student debt that makes that untenable,” Mr Thomas said.

“In some ways, it was a liberation gift for these young men that just opened up their choices.”