US’ richest billionaire promises to pay off 400 students’ loans

New York: America’s richest billionaire and a prominent philanthropist stunned an entire graduating class at a college in Atlanta when he promised to pay off nearly 400 students’ loans estimated at USD 40 million.

Robert F Smith, 56, made the announcement on Sunday while giving an address at Morehouse College, a historically all-male black college. “On behalf of the eight generations of my family who have been in this country, we’re going to put a little fuel in your bus,” Smith, told the graduates before saying his family was creating a grant to eliminate their student loans.

The announcement was met with a standing ovation, the CNN reported.

“Now, I know my class will make sure they pay this forward. I want my class to look at these (alumni) – these beautiful Morehouse brothers – and let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward because we are enough to take care of our own community. We are enough to ensure we have all the opportunities of the American dream,” he said.

The total amount covered for the 396 students is up to USD 40 million, said Morehouse President David A Thomas. He described Smith’s gesture “a liberation gift”.

“When you have to service debt, the choices about what you can go do in the world are constrained. (Smith’s gift) gives them the liberty to follow their dreams, their passions,” Thomas was quoted as saying in the report.

Founder of the investment firm Vista Equity Partners, Smith is worth about USD 5 billion, according to Forbes, which reports he is the richest black person in America. Students couldn’t believe their ears when Smith made the announcement. Student Elijah Nesly Dormeus is the first of nine kids to graduate college. His mother made many sacrifices working minimum-wage jobs to provide for him and his eight siblings after Dormeus’ father died when he was 5. In addition to the 22-year-old New Yorker’s own USD 90,000 debt, he said his mother took out a loan to help get him through school.

“All her serving, all her giving was not in vain,” Dormeus said when asked what Smith’s gift meant to his family. “We’re looking at each other like, ‘Is he being serious?’ That’s a lot of money,” said Robert James, 21, recalling his reaction to the announcement.

“It’ll sink in as the years go on. I know that for a fact. I still don’t really have words. … It makes a great day just that much better,” Jonathan Epps, 22, said, terming it a “tremendous blessing”.