GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Morehouse College Class of 2019 graduates were surprised when commencement speaker Robert Smith, a billionaire investor (who has been named the richest black man in America), announced he would pay off the student loans for the class.
His promise to nearly 400 graduates, videos of which went viral online, came with one caveat: that the students pay it forward.
Morehouse is an historically black college for men in Atlanta. Austin Young, an East Kentwood High School graduate, is part of the 2019 class. He and his family were in the crowd when the announcement was made.
“That was mind-blowing,” Young said. “At first it didn’t sink in, again. And I asked someone, ‘What did he say again? He said he was going to pay our student loans, right?'”
Once it was clear that it was real, Young and his classmates celebrated.
“People are singing, ‘Hey, hey, I’m debt free, yeah, that’s me,'” he recalled. “So I immediately text my parents in our group chat like, ‘I just felt my credit score go up,’ right — jokingly because those student loans magically vanished.”
His parents were also in the crowd.
“You hear it and we all started screaming and cheering and jumping up and down,” Young’s dad Allen Young said. “And then we were all asking, ‘Did we hear what we thought we heard?'”
“Unbelievable, pretty much. This doesn’t happen,” Austin Young’s mom Jonse Young said.
Mom and dad saved for their son college tuition, but Morehouse is private and out of state.
“So the numbers start going up,” his mom said.
It cost Austin Young about $50,000 a year for tuition, room and board. He was able to get scholarships, but still had to take out a $20,000 loan in addition to his parent’s loan.
Young said getting out of his college debt is a relief.
“One, lifting that finical burden off of my family, that as I go into my next step pursing my master’s degree that I don’t have to worry about that,” Young said. “But two, also it gives me a sense of what it means to give.”
He will continue his education to eventually get a doctorate in ministry. He wants to use his degree in urban development to focus on lifting up communities through local ordinances and laws. He may never be a billionaire, but he will give back.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is to use what I have to do what I can,” Young said. “I believe that we are all here because of somebody else, whether it’s a praying grandmother, whether it was a supportive parent like I have, whoever it was in your life pouring into you. I think it’s important that we don’t live in isolation and understand that once you receive a gift, you have to turn around and give that to someone else in whatever way you can.”
The student debt total is still being tallied. Morehouse is working on that sum and other details of the gift.