The giveaway that paid off Morehouse’s student loans is changing lives

Two years ago, on a hot, sunny day in Atlanta, Robert F. Smith did something that no other graduation lecturer has done before or since. He told the Morehouse College class of 2019 that he was going to pay off all their student loans.

“On behalf of the eight generations of this family who have lived in this country, we are going to put some fuel on your bus,” billionaire investor said towards the end of his speech. “This is my class, 2019. And my family is giving a grant to eliminate their student loans.”

In the audience, Jarvis Mays, one of the Valedictorians, was seated next to a dean.

“I just looked at him and said, ‘Is he serious?’ And he was like, ‘I guess. I’m just as shocked as you are, ”Mays said with a laugh. “No one knew this was going to happen.”

Frank Lawrence Jr. remembers standing up and clapping, along with the rest of the class, and wondering, “Is this really happening?”

It was.

$ 34 million in student loans repaid

Later that summer, Smith kept his promise and paid around $ 34 million in loans that graduates and their parents had taken out.

The fact that Smith gave this gift to a class at Morehouse, a historically black male college, was particularly significant because black Americans “are more likely to graduate with debt, and the debt grows over time.” Said Dorothy Brown, professor of law at Emory University and author of “The Whiteness of Wealth: How the Tax System Impoverishes Black Americans – and How We Can Fix It.”

Black students tend to borrow more money than white students to go to college, and historically black college and university students, in particular, borrow nearly twice as much as non-HBCU students. At Morehouse, more than 85% of students contract loans. In 2019, the average debt at graduation was between $ 35,000 and $ 40,000. Black students are also more likely to pursue higher education and take on more debt.

“Not only are their debt loads higher, but research shows that black graduates are more likely to send money to their parents and other family members, and that white graduates are more likely to receive money. money from their parents or grandparents that allows them to build wealth. Brown said. “Student debt is a big drag on black graduates who’ve done everything right, their ability to generate wealth in the future.”

To this day, Jarvis Mays cannot fully address the magnitude of Robert Smith’s gift.

“People say, ‘I want to win the lottery,’” he said. “In a way… my 400 classmates all won the lottery that day.”

Peace of mind

For him, coming out of Morehouse debt-free gave him more peace of mind in medical school.

“I knew the path I was taking was going to create a lot of debt,” said Mays, now in his sophomore year at the University of Pennsylvania, studying to be a surgeon.

Medical students graduate with over $ 200,000 in debt on average, and over 40% are already indebted for their undergraduate degrees.

Robert F. Smith and Elijah Dormeus shake hands during graduation. Smith paid off student loans for the entire Morehouse class of 2019 (McCollum Photography, courtesy of Elijah Dormeus)

“So just focusing on school and not necessarily looking at a number and knowing it’s waiting for me to pay off, it was a huge relief that made me enter medical school with a clearer head.” Mays said.

For many of his friends and classmates who are not yet in school and now working, paying down their undergraduate debt has enabled them to buy a home, invest and start earning money. wealth, things that many of them could not have done otherwise. have been able to do this for years, he said, “because if you constantly owe nothing but money it is difficult to accumulate wealth and be able to pass it on to the generations that you have. succeed. “

Accumulate generational wealth

It is still too early to know how much the gift of Robert F. Smith will change things for the Morehouse class of 2019. Many, like Mays, are still in school and others are just starting their careers. But for Frank Lawrence Jr., that has already changed a lot.

“Over the past two years this has been so important,” he said. “Because I have this space and freedom to take risks… I made decisions that I never thought I would”, such as quitting a job that wasn’t quite right and trying to start his job. own non-profit organization.

Lawrence wasn’t even supposed to be in the class of 2019. He started out as a class of 2018. But in his freshman year he got a D in a key psychology course and ended up being held for a year. This turned out to be his luck, because if he had passed this course and graduated when he was supposed to, “I should have paid back $ 65,000 in student loans,” he said. .

Instead, every penny of those loans Lawrence and his mother took to pay off Morehouse has been paid back.

Save and invest

Not having student loan repayments also allowed Lawrence to build up savings and start investing in the stock market.

“It was something that always interested me, but I knew I didn’t have the capital or the time to invest in the investment,” he said.

Now he does. Every two weeks he puts around $ 90 on the market.

“I’m just getting started,” he said. “But I really feel like I’m… not trying to get to that point: ‘Finally, I’ve paid off my loans and I’m able to start saving and investing.’ But I’m able to start this now and then see where it takes me in a year to five years.

Two years after graduating Elijah Dormeus is “literally still in awe of the love that has been given to the class, all of us 400,” he said.

“Blessed. Happy, happily loved. I think it’s loved. I think it’s the best word… I’m beyond the word grateful, beyond the word moved by him, for he offered so much ‘opportunities.

Pay in advance

Dormeus and his mother, who raised nine children in a public housing complex in New York City, had taken out more than $ 100,000 in loans to pay Morehouse. Having all of this paid off right after graduation put a huge burden – on him, his mother, and his younger siblings.

“Now my brothers can go to college without her. They get scholarships from her, they can do whatever they want, ”he said.

Dormeus, who currently works full-time at AT&T and is also building his own non-profit organization, is determined to take him forward and help other students from low-income backgrounds.

This is something he was passionate about and working on long before he graduated. It’s also something Robert F. Smith commissioned the class of 2019 to do in his graduation speech that day.

“I want my class to look at these alumni, these beautiful Morehouse brothers, and let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity in the future,” he said.

Two years later, Smith now meets with class members once a month to discuss how to proceed.

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