Billionaire tech investor and philanthropist Robert Smith has erased the burden of student loan debt for the entire 2019 class at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Tuition and other expenses at all-male, historically black college total more than $48,000 a year. Now, the billionaire's donation will allow graduates to focus on their dreams instead of their debt.
Smith is the founder and CEO of a private equity firm. According to Forbes, he's worth an estimated $5 billion.
"On behalf of the eight generations of my family who have been in this country, we're gonna put a little fuel in your bus," said Smith, who dropped a $40 million surprise during his commencement address Sunday, with a promise to pay off every penny of their student loans.
"This is my class, 2019, and my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans," he said.
The announcement appeared to stun even school administrators.
"Just imagine the weight lifted off your shoulders when you have a clean slate coming out of college," said Dwytt Lewis, who just graduated from Morehouse with a degree in business administration. He danced his way across stage after learning his more than $150,000 debt was just wiped away.
"It's just an overwhelming feeling, in a good way," Lewis told correspondent Mark Strassmann. "I'm so motivated to go change the world."
The 21-year-old from Compton, Calif., used to be homeless, and often didn't know where his next meal was coming from, let alone how he would one day pay for college.
"'Wow, okay, I'm going into a few hundred thousand dollars in debt,' right? And then your last 30 seconds of being an undergrad student, someone tells you, 'I'm taking the burden of your student loan; go change the world.'"
Smith's generous gift comes at a time where student loan debt has soared to roughly $1.5 trillion. The average student loan debt is more than $33,000.
Lewis says Smith's gift motivates him to help others who struggled just as he did. "There is room for you in this world," he said. "You can do what you want to do. You can follow your dreams. And I think that's where it starts. I think once you have that mindset of, 'I want to be impactful and I want to change the world,' I promise you that energy just transpires."
The total amount of the student debt for the class is still being calculated.
In return, Smith says he expects the recipients to "pay it forward," and challenged alumni to give future classes the same opportunity.