ATLANTA - Billionaire Robert F. Smith, who received an honorary doctorate at Morehouse College’s Sunday morning graduation exercises, had already announced a $1.5 million gift to the school.
But during his remarks in front of the nearly 400 graduating seniors, the billionaire technology investor and philanthropist surprised some by announcing that his family was providing a grant to eliminate the student debt of the entire Class of 2019.
“This is my class,” he said, “and I know my class will pay this forward.”
The announcement elicited the biggest cheers of the morning.
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Elija Dormeus said he has about $90,000 in student loan debt.
"I just started shedding tears and dancing," Dormeus said about when he heard the announcement. "I'm really excited to walk off this campus because that was one of the things I was praying for was to be debt-free."
Morehouse President David Thomas said this is the second generous gift from Smith.
"We honored him in 2018, and at the end of that, he committed $1.5 million toward scholarships," Thomas said. In return, Smith received an honorary doctorate at graduation.
Graduate Robert James said he was grateful for the opportunity to graduate without debt.
"This was his way of investing in us as individuals, letting us go into the world without debt that would potentially hold us back from doing some of the things we want to do in life," James said.
Tonga Releford, whose son, Charles Releford III, is a member of the Class of 2019, estimates that his student loans are right at about $70,000.
“I feel like it’s Mother’s Day all over again,” she said.
The gift has been estimated at $40 million.
Releford’s husband, Charles Releford II, is also a Morehouse graduate. He said their younger son, Colin, is a junior at Morehouse.
He doesn’t know who the keynote speaker will be at Colin’s graduation ceremony but is hoping for a return performance by Smith.
“Maybe he’ll come back next year.”
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