There were gasps in the audience when billionaire Robert F Smith made the announcement on Sunday during his speech at Morehouse College, in Atlanta, Georgia, where he was receiving an honorary degree.
The 56-year-old, a former chemical engineer and investment banker – who was ranked by Forbes as the 163rd richest person in America last year – will pay an estimated Sh4 billion to cover the debts.
“On behalf of the eight generations of my family that have been in this country, we’re gonna put a little fuel in your bus,” he told the graduates at the private, all-male, liberal arts, historically black college.
“This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.
“I know my class will make sure they pay this forward…and let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward because we are enough to take care of our own community.”
Smith’s amazing act of generosity was met with a standing ovation from the students who turned to each other in disbelief.
He had already pledged a Sh150 million gift to the school.
“We’re looking at each other like, ‘Is he being serious?’ That’s a lot of money,” Robert James 21, told CNN.
Jonathan Epps, 22, who has about Sh3.5 million in student debt, described it as a “tremendous blessing,” which he called the kindest, most generous thing he’d ever witnessed.
He said: “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.”
Smith, a dad of three, is the founder, chairman and CEO of private equity firm Vista Equity Partners, which he created in 2000.
Forbes has estimated his net worth at Sh500 billion and he was No. 480 in its 2018 list of the world’s billionaires.
The publication also named him as one of the 100 greatest living business minds in 2017.
He said after the ceremony: “Where you live shouldn’t determine whether you get educated. Where you go to school shouldn’t determine whether you get textbooks.
“The opportunity you access should be determined by the fierceness of your intellect, the courage in your creativity and the grit that allows you to overcome expectations that weren’t set high enough.”
Morehouse President David A. Thomas called Smith’s gesture “a liberation gift.”
He told CNN: “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.”