Morehouse College Commencement Speaker Promises To Erase Grads’ Student Loan Debt

Astrid StawiarzGetty Images

The graduating class at Morehouse College in Atlanta was shocked this weekend when the commencement speaker announced that he would be paying off the student loan debt of the entire graduating class.

Per CNN, Robert F. Smith, the billionaire tech investor, made the declaration during his speech that his family was making a grant to wipe out the student loans of every senior in the class, at an estimated price tag of $40 million. Smith, in addition to speaking, was awarded an honorary degree by the college.

“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 speech. “Now, I know my class will make sure they pay this forward.”

Morehouse is an all-male, historically black college in Atlanta that was founded in 1867. Its most famous alumni include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Spike Lee, and Samuel L. Jackson.

The class includes 396 students. They chanted “MVP” after Smith announced the gift. The philanthropist had already announced that he was donating $1.5 million to the university, per The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The newspaper added that the staff at the university was unaware that the gift was coming until Smith’s speech, but they said that it is the largest gift in the history of the college.

The 56-year-old Smith, who worked for Goodyear, Kraft, and Goldman Sachs, formed Vista Equity Partners in 2000. He’s worth an estimated $5 billion, making him the richest African-American, per CNN, having overtaken Oprah Winfrey in recent years.

Smith was among the billionaires who signed the Giving Pledge, an effort to get billionaires to donate half of their fortunes.

“I will never forget that my path was paved by my parents, grandparents and generations of African-Americans whose names I will never know,” Smith said on the Giving Pledge‘s website. “Their struggles, their courage, and their progress allowed me to strive and achieve. My story would only be possible in America, and it is incumbent on all of us to pay this inheritance forward.”

Smith presents his donations largely through the Fund II Foundation which, per its website, is “focused on improving lives and opportunities for African American and other vulnerable populations.”

Morehouse’s other honorary degree recipients this year included actress Angela Bassett and psychologist Edmund Gordon.

Smith is married to Hope Dworaczyk, who was Playboy‘s 2010 Playmate of the Year and also was a contestant on The Celebrity Apprentice in 2011.