Billionaire Robert Smith surprised Morehouse’s Class of 2019 by offering to pay off their student loans. Smith made the announcement during the college’s graduation ceremony.
On Friday, Morehouse President David Thomas said the college has received the money and is close to paying off the debt.
Thomas said Morehouse had to work with the U.S. Education Department to reconcile students’ financial records and then had to verify the results with loan servicing agencies. Students have to sign off on the numbers. Once they do, Thomas said, Morehouse will work with the servicing agencies to clear their debt.
“As I understand it, there’s a six-month window before students have to start paying back their debt,” Thomas said. “All of the debt will be relieved before that window closes. So basically, we’re guaranteeing everybody will have a Christmas present sometime between now and Christmas.”
The total cost of Smith’s gift was $34 million.
Thomas said Smith’s gesture prompted some alumni to increase their donations. He said some donors expressed an interest in making specific contributions, like contributing toward tuition for students who want to become teachers after graduation.
“So that got us thinking creatively about creating something that would attract donors who are drawn to this issue of student debt, but may want to do it in different ways than Robert Smith decided to do it,” he said.
So, the Board of Trustees established the Morehouse College Student Success Program, a scholarship program that lets donors give money to specific purposes. The college hopes the program will help reduce loan debt for future graduates.
The college will also research the effect of Smith’s gift on the Class of 2019. Thomas said Morehouse plans to track the students for the next 10-20 years to see what social and economic choices they make.
He said that data should contribute strongly to the national conversation around college affordability.