Billionaire Philanthropist Robert Smith Pledges to Pay Off All of Morehouse College's Class of 2019's Student Debt

While most commencement speakers offer the graduating class words of wisdom and inspiration as they head off into the real world, billionaire philanthropist Robert Smith offered more to the class of 2019 at Morehouse University, offering to “put a little fuel in [their] bus” by paying off the entire class’ student loan debt.

Smith, the chief executive officer of the San Francisco-based Vista Equity Partners, made the announcement Sunday his keynote graduation address at the historically black men’s college in Atlanta, promising to pay off the student loans of the nearly 400 graduates, which is estimated to cost approximately $40 million.

“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,” Smith told the graduating class. “This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”

The pronouncement surprised the 396 graduates, prompting a jaw-dropping standing ovation from the students and their families, who began chanting “MVP! MVP!”

Smith, 56, who graduated from Cornell University and Columbia University Business School, also received an honorary doctorate Sunday. According to the Associated Press, he had already pledged $1.5 million to the college, and someone familiar with his plans told BuzzFeed News that he promised to pay off the graduating class’ student debt without knowing how much it would be.

But Smith had one request from the beneficiaries of his generous gift: “Now, I know my class will make sure they pay this forward. I want my class to look at these alumni, these beautiful Morehouse brothers, and let's make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward.”

Morehouse President David Anthony Thomas told reporters after the graduation ceremony that he was stunned by Smith’s announcement. He said he spoke with Smith the night prior to the graduation ceremony about debt being one of the toughest challenges Morehouse graduates faced, with the average Morehouse student leaving school with $30,000 or more in debt, ABC News reports.

“To remove that burden allows them to start this phase of their lives with so much more potential than they ever had when they sat down this morning because they can now do anything they want to do and nothing because they have to pay that debt,” Thomas said, adding that he has “never seen anything like this” in his 30-plus years in academia.

“Three-hundred-and-ninety-six individuals will have their debt wiped out thanks to Robert F. Smith,” Thomas said.

Aaron Mitchom, a graduating student at Morehouse told the AP that he had drawn up a spreadsheet to calculate how long it would take to pay off his $200,000 in student debt — 25 years, according to his calculations.

“I can delete that spreadsheet,” Mitchom said. “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.”

Another graduate, Ernest Holmes, said he and his classmates were overwhelmed by Smith’s announcement.

“When he announced that he was going to pay off all our student debt, it was like a brief moment of disbelief and then immediately everyone went into tears, into hugging, into crying together,” Holmes told ABC News, adding that he has $10,000 in student loans.

Holmes, who earned degrees in computer science and mathematics, has accepted a software engineering job at Google and says he plans to fulfill Smith’s request of paying it forward by becoming part of the $100,000 club, a special designation for Morehouse alumni who give back $100,000 to the school.

“So that’s one of my goals within the next 10 years,” Holmes said.

People online applauded Smith’s actions and spoke of the opportunities that his gift would afford these graduates.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) tweeted this could be “the start of what’s known in Econ as a ‘natural experiment.’ Follow these students & compare their life choices w their peers over the next 10-15 years.”

Smith told the graduates at the commencement ceremony that “this is [their] moment.”

“This is your moment graduates. Between doubt and destiny is action. Between our community and the American dream is leadership. That’s your leadership. That’s your destiny. This doesn’t mean ignoring injustice. It means using your strength to right order,” Smith told the graduates.

“True wealth comes from contributing to the liberation of people and the liberation of communities we come from depends upon grit and determination, and the greatness inside of you.”