In 2019, 69% of college students took out student loans. Each student of that graduating class left school with an average debt of $29,900. Currently, Americans owe over $1.71 trillion in student loan debt, with the debt spread out across 44.7 million borrowers. With the population of the United States at around 332 million people, that means around 7.5% of Americans are in debt just by going to college.
However, there is one group that is experiencing the burden of student loan debt more than others: African American students. 86.6% of African American students borrow federal loans and graduate with $7,400 more in student debt than their white peers. However, that gap widens over time. In fact, after four years, African American students hold almost twice as much in student debt as their white counterparts. Furthermore, African American students who choose to attend a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) may be saddled with 32% more debt than graduates from other public or nonprofit four-year schools.
Over the past few years, some philanthropists have been trying to change the tides for African American students, especially those attending HBCUs or Minority Serving Institutions (MSI). In 2020, MacKenzie Scott donated more than $4.1 billion to MSIs, including HBCUs like Prairie View A&M University, Claflin University and Clark Atlanta University, just to name a few. That same year, Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, and his wife, Patty Quillin, donated $120 million to support student scholarships, gifting the money to institutions like Spelman College.
However, before these generous donations were ever made, Robert F. Smith made an unprecedented gift to the 2019 graduating class of Morehouse College. During his commencement address, he committed to paying off the student loan debt of the graduating class, a gift that totaled over $34 million. Two years later, the 2019 graduating class of Morehouse College is speaking out about how Smith’s gift changed their lives.
Morehouse College Student Success Stories
At the time of Smith’s commencement address to the 2019 graduating class, Jarvis Mays, one of the co-valedictorians, could not believe it was happening. Today, he equates the experience with winning the lottery.
“People say ‘I want to win the lottery.’ In a way … all 400 of my classmates won the lottery that day,” said Mays.
Free of undergraduate student debt, Mays is attending medical school at the University of Pennsylvania with more peace of mind. Additionally, he is seeing some of his friends and classmates doing things they never would have been able to do if they were still overburdened by student debt. They are buying homes, investing and starting to accumulate some wealth, which they can now pass down to future generations.
For Frank Lawrence Jr., the gift has been exceptionally life-changing. He was supposed to graduate in 2018. Instead, he went another year, which, with Smith’s donation, saved him and his mother $65,000 in debt. Now, he is investing and building up savings.
Even two years later, former student Elijah Dormeus is still in shock at Smith’s generosity. “I am beyond the word grateful, beyond the word moved by it, because it offered up so much opportunity,” said Dormeus of the gift.
Dormeus is also taking Smith’s suggestion to pay it forward to heart. He is building his own nonprofit, which will help other students from low-income backgrounds.
Smith continues to meet with members of the class like Dormeus once a month to talk about the best ways to give back.
“I want my class to look at these alumnus, these beautiful Morehouse brothers, and let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward,” said Smith to the 2019 graduating class.
To view Robert F. Smith’s commencement address to the 2019 graduating class of Morehouse College, check out the video on YouTube. And, to learn about how Smith is continuing to help ease the burden of debt for students of MSIs and HBCUs, check out Smith’s page on Student Freedom Initiative website.