Billionaire investor Robert F. Smith stunned the nation when he vowed to eliminate the student loan debt for Morehouse College‘s graduating class of 2019 early last month.
For many, the grand gesture — estimated to cost Smith $40 million of his wealth — was something to be celebrated, as it would allow the recent graduates to begin their next chapter of adulthood debt-free. The editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette argues, however, that Smith’s gift could possibly do more harm than good.
In an op-ed for the newspaper published Wednesday, the editorial board wrote that while “relief from impending indebtedness [is] immeasurably liberating and potentially life-changing,” being saved from “the repayment of a knowingly incurred encumbrance may not be the best life lesson to come at the start of real adulthood.”
“There is no doubt that Mr. Smith’s gift emanated from a place of kindness,” the writers added, lamenting the ever-rising costs of post-secondary education. “But is this the best gift to give a new graduate? There’s something to be said for paying what you owe, for holding up your end of a bargain.”
Smith, who received an honorary degree from the private, all-male historically black institution in Atlanta, left the nearly 400 graduates and their families stunned when he made the surprise announcement during his May 19 commencement speech. Morehouse faculty couldn’t help but let their jaws drop, as the announcement came as a shock to them, too.
“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. “This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”
In so many words, the Post-Gazette editors argued that such a gesture isn’t in the best interest of the graduates. They stated that the onus is on students and parents to choose higher education that’s within their means, encouraging them to attend an “affordable” community college or state university rather than a pricey, private institution.
“Such gifts are unlikely to become the norm,” the author said of Smith’s donation. “So the best gift to give a college graduate should come before college begins: when a student is counseled to pick a life path he or she can afford to travel.”
The assertion drew swift backlash from readers, who took to the editorial’s comments section to voice their outrage over it all.
“This is irresponsible journalism,” one reader wrote. ” You decided to reach into Georgia to comment on a Historically Black College and its graduates. To take the time to write and publish this thoughtless piece shows how out of touch the paper truly is. Nowhere in Mr. Smith’s gesture was it ever suggested that these young men did not understand the fact that they were entering a world where they would have to pay back their debts. That was an assumption made by this editorial board.”
The reader went on to criticize the undertone of the piece as a “dog-whisper that poor people should seek educations that poor people can afford.”
“By stating that students should ‘…pick a life path he or she can afford to travel,” you are indefinitely relegating people of fewer means to remain in that state,” they added.
Several other users agreed, calling the op-ed “condescending and offensive.”
“I was cringing as I was reading this condescending editorial,” another chimed in. “
“A very strange editorial and odd position to take. Surely, there were better topics from which to choose,” argued another. “’Paying it forward’ is never a bad idea. Lessons and examples of compassion and generosity are never wasted. smh.”