What Happens When a Billionaire Swoops In to Solve the Student-Debt Crisis

A philanthropist surprised Morehouse College graduates at commencement by announcing he would pay off their student loans. But one person—even a very generous one—can only do so much.

"This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans," Smith told graduates on Sunday. (Courtesy of Morehouse College)

Commencement speakers have a routine: a few words of encouragement, a good—or maybe not so good—joke, and a bit of advice. But this year, Robert F. Smith, the billionaire founder of the private equity firm Vista Equity Partners, who delivered the commencement address on Sunday morning at Morehouse College, a historically black college in Atlanta, took a different approach.

“You great Morehouse men are bound only by the limits of your own conviction and creativity,” Smith told the soon-to-be graduates of the venerated HBCU (historically black college or university). Smith then did something astonishing: He did what he could to make that actually true, telling the class that his family would be eliminating the graduates’ student debt. The crowd, as expected, went wild.

The gift, estimated at about $40 million, is expected to clear the debts of nearly 400 graduates in this class—and is the single largest donation from a living donor to an HBCU in history. The gift is, of course, significant in a political sense, coming at a time when candidates for president and other politicians are seriously mulling debt cancellation; but it is also significant for these black men at Morehouse in particular.

According to a report from the Center for American Progress, black students are more likely to take out student loans than their white peers, and nearly half of black borrowers default on their student loans. One Morehouse graduate told the Associated Press that he had $200,000 in student debt, and that when Smith announced the gift, “we all cried. In the moment it was like a burden had been taken off.” By eliminating these graduates’ debt, Smith is very directly changing their future.

The thing about generosity, though, is that it is not a salve for systemic problems. Smith, who has a net worth of $4.5 billion, could eliminate debt for thousands more—and some parents hope that he will. (“Maybe he’ll come back next year,” the father of one Morehouse graduate, who has another son who is currently a junior, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.) But one billionaire can only help so many, and more than 40 million people in the United States have student loans. And no graduation gift can help the millions of young people who never complete their degree.

It's for this reason that several Democratic presidential candidates believe that the problem of mass student debt requires a systemic approach and have proposed various “free college” policies. Senator Bernie Sanders, for example, has pushed to make public four-year colleges, community colleges, and trade schools tuition-free. Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker have signed on to debt-free college legislation. Elizabeth Warren has called for a fund of at least $50 billion to help historically black colleges in particular, as well as other minority-serving institutions, known as MSIs. And in addition to making public colleges tuition-free, her plan would also allow private historically black colleges, such as Morehouse, Howard University in Washington D.C., or Spelman College, to opt in to the federal tuition-free college program. Republicans argue, however, that injecting more federal money into colleges would simply encourage them to drive their tuition up more.

“This is my class,” Smith told the graduates and their families, “and I know my class will pay this forward.” Perhaps this is the start of a new trend; HBCUs are not used to receiving such large donations from living donors, and now the record—first a $30 million gift to Spelman back in December, now $40 million to Morehouse—has been broken twice in the past six months. Smith said he hopes that “every class has the same opportunity going forward.” But what are the chances? How many Smiths are out there, ready to swoop in?