Speaker stuns More­house grads, to pay off $40M stu­dent debt

The Standard Journal - - LOCAL - By Er­rin Haines Whack AP Na­tional Writer

A bil­lion­aire tech­nol­ogy in­vestor stunned the en­tire grad­u­at­ing class at More­house Col­lege when he an­nounced at their commenceme­nt Sun­day that he would pay off their stu­dent loans —— es­ti­mated at $40 mil­lion.

Robert F. Smith, this year’s commenceme­nt speaker, made the an­nounce­ment while ad­dress­ing nearly 400 grad­u­at­ing se­niors of the all-male his­tor­i­cally black col­lege in At­lanta. Smith, who is black, 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 gonna put a lit­tle fuel in your bus,” the in­vestor and phi­lan­thropist told grad­u­ates in his morn­ing ad­dress. “This is my class, 2019. And my fam­ily is mak­ing a grant to elim­i­nate their stu­dent loans.”

The an­nounce­ment im­me­di­ately drew stunned looks from fac­ulty and stu­dents alike. Then the grad­u­ates broke into the big­gest cheers of the morn­ing. 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 $1.5 mil­lion gift to the school. The pledge to elim­i­nate stu­dent debt for the class of 2019 is es­ti­mated to be $40 mil­lion.

Smith said he ex­pected the re­cip­i­ents to “pay it for­ward” and said he hoped that “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 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.”

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 in stu­dent loans — 25 years at half his monthly salary, per his cal­cu­la­tions.

In an in­stant, that num­ber van­ished. Mitchom, sit­ting in the crowd, wept.

“I can delete that spread­sheet,” he said in an in­ter­view af­ter the commenceme­nt. “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 Mitchom’s 76-year-old grand­mother, took turns over four years co-sign­ing on the loans that got him across the fin­ish line.

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

Robert F. Smith, left, laughs with David Thomas, cen­ter, and ac­tress An­gela Bas­sett at More­house Col­lege on Sun­day in At­lanta. Smith, this year’s commenceme­nt speaker, made the an­nounce­ment Sun­day morn­ing while ad­dress­ing nearly 400 grad­u­at­ing se­niors of the all-male his­tor­i­cally black col­lege in At­lanta.

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