Behind College Offer: The Richest Black Person in US

Robert F. Smith is paying off the class debt at Morehouse College
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted May 20, 2019 12:20 PM CDT
Meet the Man Behind That Astonishing College Offer
Graduates react after hearing billionaire technology investor and philanthropist Robert F. Smith say he will provide grants to wipe out the student debt of the entire 2019 graduating class at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Sunday, May 19, 2019.   (Steve Schaefer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

It will be hard to top as a commencement speech going forward. Billionaire Robert F. Smith told 2019 graduates of Atlanta's Morehouse College in his speech Sunday that he would pay off all their student loans. Morehouse is a historically black college, and Smith is considered to be the richest black person in the US. The move is still reverberating on Monday. Details and developments:

  • Watch it here: This video captures the moment Smith announces the offer, as well as students' reaction.
  • Who's Smith? The 56-year-old is a former Goldman Sachs exec who went on to found the private equity firm Vista Equity Partners, which focuses on software companies, per Forbes. The site pegs his net worth at $5 billion, higher than any black American and No. 3 among black people around the world.

  • How much? The exact amount of the 2019 class' debt is not yet clear, and estimates are varying widely. The New York Times notes that recent Morehouse classes have graduated with about $10 million in total debt, but adds that this year's total could be much higher. The AP cites a figure of up to $40 million.
  • Philanthropy, lavish wedding: The Washington Post has more on Smith, who lives in Austin, and his philanthropy, including a $20 million donation to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He also has joined the Giving Pledge, with a promise to donate more than half his wealth to philanthropic causes, per the Hill. On a more personal note, his 2015 wedding to actress and former Playboy model Hope Dworaczyk included the singers John Legend, Seal, and Brian McKnight.
  • It's great, but... "Two things are simultaneously true about this story: 1. This is a very cool thing to do," tweeted Current Affairs editor Sparky Abraham. "2. That this is so cool and necessary and has such a huge impact on the students' lives is a burning indictment of our higher ed system." He also called the estimate of $40 million in student debt "an enormous tragedy."
  • Costs: Full-time tuition at Morehouse is $25,368, but room and board and other expenses can push the total to nearly double that. Almost all Morehouse students get some kind of financial aid, and the school says students graduate with an average debt of $30,000 to $40,000. This year's graduating class had nearly 400 students. The Times story, for instance, talks to students with debts ranging from $10,000 to about $100,000.
  • A happy recipient: Dwytt Lewis was once homeless, but the 21-year-old from Compton, Calif., made it to Morehouse and learned Sunday that his $150,000 in student debt was being wiped away. "It's just an overwhelming feeling," he tells CBS News. "I'm so motivated to go change the world."
  • Racial disparity: Generally speaking, black students are more likely to take out federal student loans, reports CNN, citing National Center for Education stats. Specifically, more than 80% of black students, compared with 60% of white and Latino students. Black borrowers also are more likely to default, with a Center of American Progress report saying that nearly half do so within 12 years of entering college.
(More student debt stories.)

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