Billionaire to pay student loans of entire class at US college

Private equity titan Robert Smith is the US' richest African American, a rank previously held by Ms Oprah Winfrey.
Private equity titan Robert Smith is the US' richest African American, a rank previously held by Ms Oprah Winfrey.

NEW YORK • Not even Morehouse College administrators knew the announcement was coming.

Addressing the college's class of 2019, Mr Robert Smith, a man who is richer than Ms Oprah Winfrey, made a grand gesture straight out of the television mogul's playbook.

"My family is going to create a grant to eliminate your student loans," he said on Sunday, bringing the approximately 400 students in caps and gowns to their feet. "This is my class," he said.

In January, the billionaire donated US$1.5 million (S$2 million) to the college to fund student scholarships and a new park on campus. He received an honorary degree at the graduation on Sunday.

The value of the new gift is unclear because of the varying amounts the students owe, but the money will be disbursed through Morehouse College and will apply to "loans students directly have for their college education", a representative for Mr Smith said.

A private equity titan, Mr Smith founded Vista Equity Partners in 2000.

After making a fortune in software, he was named the richest African American in the US by Forbes. According to that financial magazine, Mr Smith's estimated net worth is US$5 billion, making him richer than Ms Winfrey, who previously held the title of the wealthiest black person.

Mr Smith studied chemical engineering at Cornell University and finance and marketing at Columbia Business School.

Although he shunned the spotlight for many years, Mr Smith has recently taken a more public role, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and making major charitable contributions. Cornell named its chemical and biomolecular engineering school after him following his announcement of a US$50 million gift.

Sunday's announcement came amid growing calls to address the crushing burden of student loan debt in the US, which has more than doubled in the past decade.

Over the past 20 years, average tuition and fees at private four-year colleges rose 58 per cent, after accounting for inflation, while tuition at four-year public colleges increased even more, by over 100 per cent, College Board research shows. According to federal data, the average federal student loan debt is US$32,000.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 21, 2019, with the headline 'Billionaire to pay student loans of entire class at US college'. Print Edition | Subscribe