Newly Debt-Free Morehouse Grad: 'We Realized We Could Primarily Focus On What We Loved'05:33
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Billionaire Robert F. Smith surprised nearly 400 graduates of Morehouse College in Atlanta when he announced he would eliminate their student debt — an amount estimated at $40 million. (Mike Stewart/AP)
Billionaire Robert F. Smith surprised nearly 400 graduates of Morehouse College in Atlanta when he announced he would eliminate their student debt — an amount estimated at $40 million. (Mike Stewart/AP)

Billionaire Robert F. Smith surprised the nearly 400 graduates of the all-male, historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta on Sunday when he announced he would eliminate their student debt — an amount estimated at $40 million.

Peter Wilborn was one of the students in the crowd.

"I guess if you could choose a word for the entire ... experience when he announced it, it was almost surreal," Wilborn tells Here & Now's Robin Young. "So many of us had lived with the idea of student debt, with the idea of just coming out of college with loans at that point. It was just given as a fact of life. But when he announced it, suddenly a lot of that just went away, and we realized we could primarily focus on what we loved and what we had studied for so many years."

Smith's pledge comes amid a national debate about skyrocketing college costs, and about funding for America's historically black colleges and universities. Full-time tuition at Morehouse is a little over $25,000 — but then there's room and board, books and other fees, bringing the per-semester total closer to $50,000. More than 90 percent of Morehouse students receive some form of financial aid.

Many of Wilborn's classmates were staring down debt in excess of $100,000 — one even said their total stood at $200,000. In that regard, Wilborn says he considers himself lucky.

"Mine was around $14,000," Wilborn says. "I ended up having to take some [loans] out, as one of the scholarships I had ran out, and I simply needed something in the meantime so that I could continue at school. So I decided to take out a couple of loans, and I was fully planning on paying them back in a couple of years."

Black students are far more likely to take out student loans than their white peers, and nearly half of those black student borrowers default on their loans, according to the Center for American Progress.

Wilborn says he and his classmates have had conversations in the hours following the address about how the windfall sets a "new bar for excellence." With such a significant financial burden lifted, the onus is now on the class of 2019 — which Smith called "my class" in his address — to go out and succeed, Wilborn says.

"That way, when the time comes, we can do the same thing for other people and just continue this cycle of supporting students that want to do what they love, but have to worry about taking out loans, about having to pay somebody back for college," Wilborn says. "No one should have to live with that. That's just a fact of the matter."

As for what's next, Wilborn says he'll soon head to Africa to teach English as a second language with the Peace Corps. After that, he says he wants to come back to Atlanta to get his master's degree in public policy.

"From there I plan to become a policy analyst so that I can affect foreign and peace policy, either with a think tank within America or with the U.S. State Department," Wilborn says.

The pledge from Smith — the wealthiest African American man in the country and founder of the investment firm Vista Equity Partners — might further come as a surprise because he graduated from Cornell University, not Morehouse nor any other historically black college or university. But his philanthropy has frequently been aimed at elevating black institutions, like a multimillion-dollar donation to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Wilborn says he researched Smith prior to commencement, and says Smith's act reveals a keen understanding of Morehouse and what it represents in the black community.

"He didn't have to do this at all," Wilborn says. "And yet he did."


Ciku Theuri produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Jack Mitchell adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on May 20, 2019.

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