Speaker stuns 2019 Morehouse grads, to pay off student debt

Robert F. Smith (left) laughs with David Thomas and actress Angela Bassett at Morehouse College on Sunday in Atlanta. Bo Emerson/

Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

Kudos to Robert Smith.

The Texas billionaire pledged Sunday to pay off the student loan debt of the 396 members of the 2019 graduating class of Morehouse College.

Smith, who had donated $1.5 million for student scholarships and a new park on campus, made his surprise announcement from the stage after receiving an honorary doctorate from the all-male historically segregated Atlanta college whose alumni include Martin Luther King Jr., Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson.

Parents hugged one another. One graduate said his father nearly passed out when he realized he’d be able to retire now. The audience exploded in chants of “MVP! MVP!” which Morehouse President David Thomas suggested might stand for Most Valuable Philanthropist.

It was an incredibly generous gift to members of a future generation, most of whom are strangers to Smith.

No one knows for sure how much that will cost the Austin investor. The Associated Press first reported it could be $10 million, then upped the guess to $40 million. Smith has an estimated net worth of $5 billion. Forbes has ranked him the 163rd richest person in America.

Smith styled his generosity as an investment, calling on the students who benefit from his philanthropy to pay it forward and challenging the alumni of Morehouse to find a way to do the same for future graduating classes.

“Let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward, because we are enough to take care of our own community,” Smith said. “We are enough to ensure we have all the opportunities of the American dream.”

The burden of student loan debt isn’t unique to the graduates at Morehouse; and, despite Smith’s challenge, it’s hard to imagine philanthropy being a sustainable means of addressing it. But his selfless generosity is admirable and a reminder — from one standing in a very high place — that to whom much is given, much is expected.

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