A surprise gift from a commencement speaker is now shedding light on a crisis in our country, as more and more students graduate college with loan debt.
During Sunday’s graduation at Morehouse College, commencement speaker Robert Smith made an announcement no one saw coming.
“We’re going to put a little fuel in your bus,” the billionaire philanthropist said. “My family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”
After receiving an honorary doctorate, he pledged to pay up to $40 million to pay off the debt for nearly 400 graduates, including Demarcus Harris of Milwaukee.
“Have you ever went to a basketball game or a Packers football game and they just scored?” Harris said. “It was louder than that.”
Among the cheers, he expressed a feeling of relief throughout the crowd.
“It just felt like a burden was off our shoulders, and we all celebrated in the moment,” Harris said.
While scholarships from local organizations paid most of Harris’ tuition, he worried about debt accrued from other costs such as room and board.
“I never wanted to be a black man graduating from college with a significant amount of debt and struggling to repay large amounts of student loans,” he said.
Harris’ concerns are a reality.
Last year, the student debt crisis hit record levels for graduates of historically black colleges and universities. The Wall Street Journal found average federal debt for alumni of HBCUs was more than 30% higher than for those of other public and nonprofit schools.
Nic Stokes of Milwaukee graduated from Morehouse in 2016, but he’ll still be paying off student debt for a few more years. He has advice for any college alumni facing debt.
“There’s a saying that if you don’t plan, you plan to fail, so the best thing you can do is make a plan, budget things out,” Stokes said.
“Have you ever went to a basketball game or a Packers football game and they just scored? It was louder than that.” — 2019 Morehouse College graduate Demarcus Harris of Milwaukee
Even though he’s not included on the gift, he has no hard feelings for the lucky Morehouse grads.
“It’s giving them the opportunity to be all they can be,” Stokes said.
Harris said he appreciates Smith’s gift, which is not only a great gesture but also a great example of how to pay it forward.