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Black Billionaire Will Pay Off Millions For Morehouse Grads

By Rosaland Tyler
Associate Editor
New Journal and Guide

Robert F. Smith, the billionaire investor who founded Vista Equity Partners and became the richest African American in the United States, recently told Morehouse graduates that he and his family would pay off the entire graduating class’s student debt.

Buoyed by hope but burdened by debt, the 396 young men in caps and gowns are free to launch the next chapter, whether it is graduate school, a position with Teach for America or an internship at Goldman Sachs, without loan payments to worry about.

“We’re going to put a little fuel in your bus,” Smith told the graduates near the end of his address to the 135th graduating class. Scheduled to receive an honorary doctorate, Smith said, “This is my class,” claiming the graduating seniors as his own. “And my family is making a grant to eliminate student loans.”

The gift is worth an estimated $40 million, according to the Associated Press, and Smith said his family would pay off the loans through a grant. Smith, who has a net worth of about $5 billion according to Forbes, is the chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, a private equity group he founded in 2000 that specializes in investing in software companies.

His accomplishments include patenting a coffee brewing method a coffee filtration system for the company formerly known as Kraft General Foods in the 1990s. One of the patents was awarded in April 1995, the other patent, awarded two years earlier, was for a coffee filter that had “a microscopic arrangement of holes which permit coffee beverage to pass through.”

As Smith stood at the podium at Morehouse, graduates slowly processed the news.

“The sun was beaming on us,” said Ernest Holmes, who said he had about $10,000 in loans that his parents were going to tackle.

“We’re holding our papers up, trying to block the sun out of our eyes. Everyone jumped up, cheered. People were crying. It was just the most amazing thing.” Holmes said he would soon start work as a software engineer for Google in Mountain View, Calif.

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Brandon Manor, who plans to attend graduate school, said, “A blessing, a blessing. Now all of a sudden, I can look at schools I might not have considered, because I am not applying with about $100,000 in undergraduate loans.”

Full-time tuition at Morehouse was $25,368 in the latest academic year and other expenses, including room, board, books, and fees which can push the total to above $48,000. More than 90 percent receive some form of financial aid, according to the college.

Smith, known for a range of philanthropic donations including one to Morehouse earlier this year to finance scholarships, told the audience that his gift was meant to motivate others and set an example.

“Let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward, because we are enough to take care of our own community,” he said. “We are enough to ensure we have all of the opportunities of the American dream, and we will show it to each other through our actions and through our words and through our deeds.”

According to a person familiar with his thinking, Smith had become increasingly concerned in recent years about the degree to which students leave college saddled with heavy debts, including many at Morehouse, something that concerned Smith as he prepared to accept an honorary degree from the college.

The idea of wiping out the current class’s debts came to him in recent days, the person said, and as he prepared for graduation he grew more convinced that he would make the gesture. But he kept his plans quiet.

He did not inform Morehouse’s administration, employees, or students in advance, and many in Smith’s own inner circle were surprised by the news.

Many details remain unsettled, including how students will demonstrate the amount of debt they have and how it will be paid off. Also unclear is the total amount Smith will contribute. Morehouse employees were scrambling on Sunday to calculate the total student loan debt of the 2019 graduating class. According to published figures, recent classes have graduated with roughly $10 million in total debt, but the figure could be considerably higher this year.

David A. Thomas, president of Morehouse, said he would meet with Smith to work out the details of the grant.

“This was a liberation gift, meaning this frees these young men from having to make their career decisions based on their debt,” Thomas said. “This allows them to pursue what they are passionate about.”

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Before he earned his billions, Smith, 56, grew up in Colorado, the son of Dr. William Robert Smith and Dr. Sylvia Myma Smith, who were both schoolteachers with doctoral degrees. He earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at Cornell, followed by an MBA from Columbia Business School. He went on to work first at Kraft General Foods, then at Goldman Sachs before founding his own investment firm.

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