Robert F. Smith, a billionaire who is the chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, stunned the 396 graduates he addressed at Morehouse College Sunday when he pledged to repay all their student debt.
The vast majority of Morehouse graduates borrow. While the historically black college has not figured out the exact amount that will be involved, Smith said he would pay up to $40 million to meet his pledge.
Graduates broke into cheers when Smith closed his graduation speech with the announcement. College officials standing behind Smith seemed surprised by the news.
Smith, in his speech, talked of the discrimination black people continue to face in the United States and urged the graduates to fight it -- pushing for political change and economic advancement. Smith said Morehouse graduates have an obligation to work on behalf of black people who do not have their advantages.
"You must become a community builder," he said. "You don't want to just be on the bus. You want to own it and drive it and pick up as many people as you can," he said.
He introduced the comments on his gift by saying that he was going "to put a little fuel in your bus."
Smith challenged Morehouse alumni to build on his gift. The Class of 2019 "is my class," he said. But other alumni need to help other alumni and students.
Only by doing so, he said, will the United States become a place where access to education is determined by "the fierceness of your intellect."
Earlier in his address, he urged students to work hard and to be deliberate. "Be intentional about the words you speak, how you define yourself, the people you spend time with," he said.
On social media, graduates and those with them at the time of the speech expressed joy.
Many were writing that they had not known how they would repay their debt.
If the spending on repaying the debt hits $40 million, the gift would be the largest in Morehouse's history.
Politicians are also taking note, with some suggesting that this could provide a way to see what happens when talented African Americans are able to launch their careers without worrying about student loans.
Smith's promise to Morehouse graduates is in some ways the flip side of the I Have a Dream program created by the late Eugene M. Lang in 1981. Speaking at the elementary school he had once attended, he promised to pay for college for everyone there that day, as long as they finished high school and applied to a college. The idea quickly caught on and spread. It may be a sign of the times -- with student debt worrying so many new graduates -- that Smith's promise to a class was as its members were finishing college but worried about repaying student loans.