Robert Smith (Image from Morehouse College commencement video)
The Morehouse College Class of 2019 didn’t just earn their degrees; they also got total student loan forgiveness from commencement speaker and billionaire Robert Smith. In a surprise move, Smith announced his family would pay off the student loan debt of every Morehouse student graduating that day, a sum Forbes calculates to be between $10 million and $40 million.
While this generous gift will make a huge difference in the lives of students, it’s well within budget for Smith, whose fortune — built through private equity firm Vista Equity Partners — is estimated at $5 billion. With this act of philanthropy, Smith joins a small group of wealthy individuals who have helped others avoid the burden of student loan debt.
Here’s the story on Smith and similar philanthropists who want to help solve the student loan crisis in America.
1. Billionaire Robert Smith promises to pay student loans
Smith had been planning the announcement for days, but most students, families and faculty were caught by surprise when he revealed he would pay the student loan debt of all 396 graduates at the commencement ceremony Sunday.
“Let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward, because we are enough to take care of our own community,” Smith said in his speech to the all-male students at this historically black college. “We are enough to ensure we have all of the opportunities of the American dream, and we will show it to each other through our actions and through our words and through our deeds.”
Although the details of this pledge haven’t been worked out yet, Morehouse grads can go forward to pursue jobs, internships or further study without student loans weighing them down.
2. Oprah Winfrey has supported Morehouse students, too
On the same day Smith pledged to wipe away the debt for Morehouse grads, celebrity Oprah Winfrey was delivering a commencement speech at Colorado College. Famous for her charitable giving, Oprah has her own history of helping Morehouse students.
In 1989, she spoke at the Atlanta school and announced a $1 million donation to Morehouse scholarships. Since that time, she’s donated $12 million more to the scholarship fund, helping put more than 400 students through school.
3. Ken Langone helped make NYU medical school tuition-free
Home Depot founder Ken Langone is also doing his part to relieve students of education debt. As chair of the board of trustees at the NYU Langone Medical Center, Langone donated $100 million to help make NYU’s medical school tuition-free. Although NYU’s offer doesn’t cover room and board, it waives the $55,000 annual tuition fee.
Medical school is notoriously expensive. Fortunately, however — thanks to the generosity of people like Langone — there is an especially wide selection of medical scholarships, as well as student loan repayment assistance for physicians, nurses and other medical professionals.
4. Nicki Minaj paid off student loans for fans
The Twitterverse was set abuzz in May 2017 when rapper Nicki Minaj offered to pay off student loans for her fans who got straight As.
After some back-and-forth tweets (and probably some exchange of paperwork behind the scenes), Minaj ended up paying off $18,000 of her fans’ loans while bringing attention to the student debt crisis. She also announced she would be setting up a charity to help students pay for college and get rid of their debt.
5. Sidney Frank donated $100 million to Brown
The late billionaire businessman Sidney Frank also made a substantial donation to put students through school. In 2004, Frank gave $100 million to his alma mater Brown University to established the Sidney E. Frank Endowed Scholarship Fund. His gift funds the education for about 130 undergraduates every year.
While funding scholarships are still a more popular form of charity than offering to pay off student loans, the effects are similar. If you’re still in school (or haven’t yet started), hunting around for scholarships and grants is vital to keeping any student debt as low as possible.
7. Bill and Melinda Gates fund billions in scholarships
Of course, Frank isn’t the only one offering scholarships. Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, for instance, have been especially generous.
Since it launched in 2000, the billions of dollars in charitable donations made by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has included financial assistance for students. One of its flagship programs, the Gates Scholarship, continues to provide full-ride scholarships to high-achieving students with financial need.
In fact, many other celebrities, both past and present, have scholarship funds in their name. And while that might not be of help to those who already have student loans, it can go a long way in making sure that future graduates don’t face the same towering wall of debt that previous classes have.
Getting your student loans forgiven
If you’re not one of the lucky students who’s benefited from the philanthropy of these individuals, you might still be able to get your student loans forgiven. Programs such as Public Service Loan Forgiveness discharge student loans for qualifying professionals. And many student loan repayment assistance programs will help you pay off federal and private student debt.
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