Cornell alumnus Robert F. Smith ’85 announced a plan to pay the student loan debt of nearly 400 Morehouse College graduates on Sunday, a gift estimated at $40 million.
Smith was the commencement speaker for Morehouse College, a historically black college for men whose alumni include civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. During the ceremony, the college awarded Smith an honorary doctorate degree alongside actress Angela Bassett.
Smith announced the plans for his family to set up a grant to pay the student loan debt of all the graduates of the class of 2019. A Morehouse representative told The Sun that the specific amount of the gift is still being determined.
“On behalf of the eight generations of my family that have been in this country, we’re going to put a little fuel in your bus,” Smith said at the ceremony. “This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”
“My family is going to create a grant to eliminate your student loans!” -Robert F. Smith told the graduating Class of 2019 @RFS_Vista #MorehouseGrad2019 pic.twitter.com/etG8JhVA46
— Morehouse College (@Morehouse) May 19, 2019
His announcement was followed by chants of “MVP” from the crowd, expressing their excitement.
“Now, I know my class will make sure they pay this forward,” Smith said. “I want my class to look at these [alumni] – these beautiful Morehouse brothers – and let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward because we are enough to take care of our own community.
“We are enough to ensure we have all the opportunities of the American dream,” he continued.
Morehouse President David A. Thomas shared his thoughts with CNN about the impact Smith’s gift will have on the graduates, acknowledging the freedom of not having debt.
“When you have to service debt, the choices about what you can go do in the world are constrained,” Thomas said. “[Smith’s gift] gives them the liberty to follow their dreams, their passions.”
Families at Morehouse have also expressed their gratitude over the gift. Tonga Releford, mother of a Class of 2019 Morehouse student, Charles Releford III, estimated her son’s student loans at about $70,000.
“I feel like it’s Mother’s Day all over again,” she told the Atlantic Journal Constitution.
The cost of attendance for Morehouse was $48,500 for 2018-2019 school year. Currently student loan debt is rising nationally, with more than 44 million borrowers owing $1.5 trillion in student loan debt according to Forbes. For the Class of 2017, students nation-wide owed on average $28,650.
Prior to announcing his gift today, Smith donated $1.5 million to Morehouse in January to be used towards scholarships and building a park.
At Cornell, Smith studied chemical engineering and was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. He has extended his philanthropic spirit to Cornell in the past, pledging $50 million in 2016 to the Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, named for Smith.
“I credit much to my career success to being an engineer by training,” Smith said about the gift. “My direct intention here is to work directly with Cornell Tech and Cornell Engineering, in New York City and in Ithaca, to create direct on-ramps for African-Americans and young women to enter tech so that they can help lead us into the fourth industrial revolution.”
After graduating from Cornell, Smith worked as a chemical engineer and later attended Columbia Business School, earning a Master of Business Administration in 1994. He then worked as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs until 2000, when he founded his own private equity firm — Vista Equity Partners — which currently has over $46 billion in assets.
In addition to his business success, Smith is the founding director and Chairman of the nonprofit organization Fund II Foundation, which gives grants in five areas: preserving African American culture, promoting human rights, environmental conservation, music education and entrepreneurship according to its site.
Adding to Smith’s philanthropy, he was the second highest private donor to the National Museum of African American History and Culture which opened in 2016, giving $20 million.
In 2017, Smith was among the world’s wealthiest individuals who have signed the Giving Pledge, a promise to give the majority of his wealth to causes that support “equality of opportunity of African-Americans” and “ecological protection.” He was the first African-American to sign the pledge.
As of 2019, Smith is the richest African American person with a net worth of $5 billion according to Forbes, dethroning Oprah who previously held the title.