About 400 seniors at Morehouse College got an unexpected graduation gift Sunday — the erasure of their student-loan debt.
Billionaire tech investor Robert F. Smith — the founder and chief executive of Vista Equity Partners — dropped that bombshell while addressing students during commencement ceremonies Sunday at the all-male, historically black college in Atlanta.
“This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”
The announcement stunned students and administrators alike, and drew a massive cheer from the crowd.
The pledge is estimated to be worth $40 million, the largest single gift in school history, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
That’s on top of a previously announced $1.5 million donation from Smith, who was given an honorary doctorate Sunday.
Smith said he hopes the graduates would “pay it forward.”
“Because we are enough to take care of our own community,” Smith said, according to the Associated Press. “We are enough to ensure that 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.”
Graduating students were, as one might expect, ecstatic.
“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,” finance major Aaron Mitchom, 22, told the Associated Press. He said he owed $200,000 in student loan debt, which he estimated would have taken about 25 years to pay off.
Student-loan debt is an increasing burden among young adults, with an estimated $1.5 trillion owed nationwide. A recent analysis by NerdWallet found that a 2019 high school graduate who will depend on student loans for college can expect to borrow $37,400, on average, in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree.