Billionaire investor Robert F. Smith shocked the nation this month when he promised to donate $40 million of his wealth to eliminate the student loan debt of the entire graduating class at Morehouse College.
With the financial burden now gone, a few newly graduated Morehouse men are making a promise of their own: to pay it forward.
Peter J. Wilborn was among the 396 young men who graduated from the elite, historically-black college in Atlanta on May 19 when Smith made the “unforgettable” announcement.
“I’ll never forget when he said that,” Wilborn told Atlanta Black Star in an exclusive interview. “We didn’t even have our degrees at that point and we couldn’t even focus on truly getting our degrees because we were like ‘bruh, I’m debt free!'”
Kye Harris, who earned his degree in Cinema Television Emerging Media Studies, said he was equally “surprised and shocked” by the news and said he was grateful for the fresh start.
“God works in mysterious ways,” Harris said, explaining he was initially supposed to graduate in 2018. “My mom told me, she said ‘who would’ve known that you staying an extra year [meant] your loans would be paid for.”
With the cost of college steadily rising each year, students find themselves taking out thousands of dollars in loans to pay for their education. Almost 70 percent of students in the class of 2018 had taken out student loans and graduated last year with an average debt of $29,800, a 2019 report by Student Loan Hero revealed.
The report, published in February, notes that an estimated 44.7 million Americans are burdened by student loan debt and owe more than $1.56 trillion in borrowed funds, both federal and private.
Students aren’t the only ones bogged down by the debt; 14 percent of their parents took out an average of $35,600 in federal Parent PLUS loans last year.
Like most other private institutions, attending Morehouse comes at a high price. The estimated cost of attendance for the 2018-2019 academic school year ranged from $32,000 to upwards of $48,500. This includes fees for room and board, transportation, books and supplies.
Recent Morehouse grad Ellis Walton was bogged down with almost $25,000 in student loan debt before a scholarship from media mogul Oprah Winfrey helped lighten his load. The $40 million pledge from Smith helped pay off what was left.
“Oprah was the one who put me through Morehouse, who allowed me to just have an education and join this brotherhood.” said Walton, who is law school bound. “But I’m also grateful for Dr. Smith … to lift that burden off my shoulders.”
“It’s just a blessing to have it all paid off,” he added.
Though Morehouse grad and Gates Millennium scholar Moses Washington graduated last week without a dime in debt, he said he appreciates what Smith has done for his fellow Morehouse grads.
“Being at commencement … was still a very good feeling because I know what it was like for me when I won my scholarship,” said Washington, who had no idea how he would pay for his education had it not been for Bill and Melinda Gates and the United Negro College Fund.
“So seeing the same thing happen for my brothers … was a very great feeling,” he added.
During his commencement speech last week, Smith not only vowed to pay off the graduates’ student debt but challenged the school’s alumni to pay it forward.
“On behalf of the eight generations of my family who have been in this country, we’re gonna put a little fuel in your bus,” Smith told the crowd before making the surprise announcement. “This is my class, 2019 — and my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”
“I know my class will pay it forward,” he added.
Wilborn, Harris , Walton and Washington said they plan to do just that.
“For me personally, how I’m going to pay it forward is by inspiring creatives around the world to tap into their dreams,” said Harris. “And I want them to be able to believe in themselves unapologetically.”
Washington, who’s also headed to law school, said he plans on giving back via his very own nonprofit organization.
“By me leaving Morehouse debt free, I want to rebrand the [corridor of shame] by showing kids back in South Carolina where I’m from that anything is possible.”
Smith’s generous donation has set the bar high for all other commencement speakers tapped to address graduates and their families next year. His $400 million gift not only carries special meaning for higher education, but for African-American graduates in particular.
Recent studies have shown that graduates of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like Morehouse College have historically faced higher burdens of debt. A Wall Street Journal report on the impacts of the student debt crisis at HBCU’s revealed that 75 percent of students at private HBCU’s take out federal loans, compared to just 51 percent of students at non-HBCU private institutions.
The disparities are even more shocking when examined among racial lines. A 2018 study titled, “Racial Disparities in Student Debt and the Reproduction of the Fragile Black Middle Class,” found that Black students take on 85 percent more of educational debt that their white peers.
Repayment of such loans is also no easy feat, considering the income disparities faced by African-Americans. According to the study, white borrowers pay down their student debt at a rate of about 10 percent a year, compared to just 4 percent for Black borrowers.
“The racial wealth gap is both the biggest and has grown the fastest among those with a college education,” Jason Houle, assistant professor of sociology at Dartmouth College and co-author of the study, told CNBC at the time. “We point to student loan debt as potentially one thing that explains why that’s happened.”
“We don’t just want to thank you for giving us a head start, but we also accept your challenge,” Wilborn said. “We plan to do so much more with what you’ve given us — so much more than we could possibly conceive of right now. Thank you so much.”
Watch more in the video below.