This gesture has the potential to advance an overdue national conversation about the enormous cost of college in America.
Imagine, standing in the Georgia sunshine in your graduation gown along with your classmates, wearing the mortarboard with its jaunty tassel, when the man behind the lectern says you don’t have to pay back that $30,000 you borrowed to pay for school.
What? He said what?
Talk about a lovely fantasy. The average American college student graduates with about $30,000 in debt — money the graduates must begin repaying early in their careers, as soon as six months after graduation. That level of debt can hobble promising young people for decades, especially those with few family resources or who are beginning low-paying but worthy careers, such as teaching.
But at Morehouse College, a historically black, all-male institution in Atlanta, the fantasy came true. It happened when billionaire Robert F. Smith delivered the commencement keynote.
Smith, nodding toward the Morehouse alumni in attendance, told the nearly 400 graduates: “On behalf of the eight generations of my family who have been in this country, we’re going to put a little fuel in your bus. Now, I’ve got the alumni over there. And this is a challenge to you, alumni. This is my class — 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”
It was an electrifying moment — one that induced gasps, laughs and cheering. Even the graduates had a hard time believing it was true. They told reporters they were “speechless,” “shocked” and even that “God has smiled on me.”
Mr. Smith’s remarkable act of generosity is a tribute to the kind of man he seems to be — unpretentious, serious, blessed with a conscience and a generous heart. He is ranked as the richest African-American in America, with wealth estimated at around $5 billion, built from the success of the private equity company he founded to acquire and sell software companies.
He hasn’t sought the spotlight, but has never forgotten his obligation to other people. His profile has risen as he has made substantial philanthropic donations, including an earlier, $1.5 million gift to Morehouse.
But this gesture is both more personal and grander, and it has the potential to advance an overdue national conversation about the enormous cost of college in America.
Earlier this year, Forbes magazine called student debt a “$1.5 trillion crisis.” Student loan debt is greater than all the credit card debt in the country, and more than 11 percent is delinquent or in default. Almost 45 million Americans owe money on their college loans. And colleges have shown little interest, to put it mildly, in cutting immense bureaucracies and luxuries that drive up costs.
Sending a student to college is no longer an easy choice for many families, though many still consider a college education a prerequisite for professional success. They struggle to fill the gap between the cost and their resources with federal and private aid, scholarships and institutional grants and waivers — and by borrowing money.
This pattern creates a dilemma for many families, saddles young people with debt that previous generations never bore, and overshadows other important financial choices the graduates must make, such as whether to buy a house or have a child. Forcing taxpayers to fund college would only shift the soaring debt.
America, in truth, has a college affordability problem that’s much bigger than the grant bestowed on the lucky Morehouse graduating class of 2019.
A version of this editorial first appeared in the Providence (R.I.) Journal, a News Herald sister paper with GateHouse Media.