Billionaire Cruelly Denies Morehouse Grads Character-Building Crippling Student Loan Debt
Billionaire technology investor Robert F. Smith rewarded this year's Morehouse graduates handsomely for staying awake during his commencement address. Smith had just received an honorary doctorate and in a stunning act of fellowship with his fellow graduating class, he pledged to pay off all their student loans.
It was a great moment at the historically black Atlanta college. Parents and students wept -- delighted that they wouldn't have to keep living together.
SMITH: On behalf of the eight generations of my family that have been in this country, we're gonna put a little fuel in your bus. This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.
This bus is getting some high-octane rocket fuel. The gift is estimated at $40 million, which means the 400 graduating seniors were carrying an average of $100,000 in debt. Why the hell does it cost so much to go to college? Graduates should leave college with endless ambition not saddled with so much debt they're figuring out which organs they'll have to sell on the black market. Young brother Aaron Mitchom had calculated that it would take him 25 years at half his monthly salary to pay off his $200,000 debt. He's thrilled he won't have to "live off peanut butter and jelly sandwiches." He might even have sex now. Because it's very hard to date successfully when all you have to offer anyone are peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Smith is an engineer by training. He attended Cornell and has an MBA from Columbia University. In 2000, he founded Vista Equity Partners, which invests exclusively in software companies. Smith is personally worth $5 billion (with a "B"). He was also the first black billionaire to sign the Giving Pledge, a commitment to contribute the majority of his wealth to philanthropic causes. It's not that black folks are cheap. There just aren't a lot of black billionaires -- only 11 out of the world's estimated 2,043. Morehouse is also an all-male college, so Oprah Winfrey and her checkbook need to show some love to this year's Spelman graduates.
We love that Smith is giving back to the community in a major way. Minority students take on more debt than their peers and have higher rates of default. Facebook might "struggle" to find black employees, but debt collectors have no trouble locating them. Morehouse College president David A. Thomas described Smith's gift as "liberation" for the students that would "open up their choices" -- you know, like graduating from college used to do.
THOMAS: Many of my students are interested in going into teaching, for example, but leave with an amount of student debt that makes that untenable.
But ... won't we need teachers from the class of 2020 or 2021 or ... you see where we're going here. Morehouse graduate Dwytt Lewis declared he's free to "change the world" now that his $150,000 debt's been wiped away. This is both inspiring and heartbreaking. These kids are talking like they've had prison sentences commuted. This is why Elizabeth Warren had a plan for eliminating student debt on a larger scale. Unfortunately, it's less sexy when the government is involved. There's been far more press over 400 students having their debt cleared than the 42 million who'd benefit under Warren's plan. Americans aren't crazy about collective efforts to help each other. We prefer to rely on the kindness of our wealthy betters.
What does this even mean? "If YOU think that people's houses shouldn't burn to the ground, you can use your OWN hoses to put it out." Warren isn't running for dictator but president of the United States (admittedly, it's currently hard to tell the difference). She's literally telling us what her plans are. The majority of Americans can agree that this is how we should spend OUR money.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suggested that we follow the lucky Morehouse students like participants in the Up documentary series. We agree with her overall take, but frankly we're already sold on the notion that not having a mountain of debt is a definite positive. What if trying to prove it with fancy graphs and charts actually shows the opposite? Maybe the entire Morehouse class of 2019 will end up like characters in a Final Destination movie. Conservatives will just run around shouting, "See? Crippling debt is wonderful and freedom-generating!"
Smith performed a good deed in a weary world, but it's one that also shines a light on the student debt crisis. Eight members of Mitchom's family took turns co-signing his loans -- including his 76-year-old grandmother. You'll put up with a lot of shit from your boss if losing your job means your grandmother loses her house or has to move into an assisted living facility located under a freeway. Maybe that's the point. And maybe we should fight for a future where every college graduate feels as unburdened and truly "liberated" as the beneficiaries of Smith's generosity.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He's on the board of the Portland Playhouse theater and writes for the immersive theater Cafe Nordo in Seattle. Tickets are on sale now for his latest Nordo collaboration, "Curiouser and Curiouser," an adaptation of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass." It promises to feel like an actual evening with SER (for good or for ill).