Chester Higgins Jr. / The New York Times

Robert F. Smith ’85, the founder and chief executive of Vista Equity Partners, pledged to pay off the Morehouse College class of 2019's student loans in a commencement address.

September 25, 2019

Robert F. Smith ’85 Fulfills Morehouse Graduation Promise With $34 Million Gift

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Morehouse College announced on Friday that Cornell alumnus Robert F. Smith ’85 and his family completed their promise to the Class of 2019 with a $34 million donation to the new Morehouse College Student Success Program.

The fund will pay off the loans of the class of 2019 and their parents that were taken out to afford their education at the institution, according to the press release.

Smith is currently the Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, an equity firm he founded in 2001, and has a net worth $5 billion according to Forbes. Prior to entering the financial services industry, Smith worked as an engineer after earning a chemical engineering degree at Cornell. He later decided to attend Columbia University where he earned an MBA in 1994.

At the Morehouse graduation this year, Smith received an honorary degree. He noted in his speech that he wanted to do something for his class.  At the graduation, Smith said he wanted all the students to be able to access the American dream.

“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.”

The gift is a part of the college’s Student Success Program, which will now accept donations with the purpose of reducing and eliminating loans of Morehouse students. Full and partial scholarships will be available for current and future students under the program as well as access to financial literacy programs for families.

President of Morehouse College David A. Thomas called it a “liberation gift.”

“It is our hope that our graduates will use their newfound financial freedom to pursue their career goals, to lead and serve the community, and to remember the spirit of the gift given to them by paying it forward to support the education of future classes of Morehouse Men,” Thomas said in a press release.

The current loan debt threshold for Morehouse graduates is between $35,000 and $40,000. The average debt for graduates of historically black colleges and universities is $26,266, double that of non-HBCU students, according to United Negro College Fund data in the press release.

Students who graduated in May 2019 or finished their degree requirements in the summer are eligible for the program for loan balances as of August 28, 2019. The six types of loans that will be repaid include federal subsidized loans, federal unsubsidized loans, Georgie Student Access Loans, Perkins Loans, Parent Plus Loans and some private student loans serviced through Morehouse college. The disbursement of funds is expected to be completed by Spring 2020.

Morehouse said it will study the impacts of the Student Success Program, paying particular attention to the “freedom of choice” given to those who graduate without the burden of student loan debt.

The gift is a part of a history of philanthropic actions for Smith. In 2016, he pledged $50 million to the chemical engineering school at Cornell, which was subsequently named after him.

Nor was this his first gift to Morehouse. In January 2019, Smith gave $1.5 million to the school for scholarships and the construction of a park.

Other charitable contributions include $20 million to the National Museum of African American History and Culture Smith. In 2017, he became the first African American billionaire to give a pledge to donate more than 50 percent of his wealth to charity.