Read: Why America needs its HBCUs
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?