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Morehouse College president talks Robert Smith's student debt gift

Morehouse college grads
Photo: Marcus Ingram/Getty Images

As Vista Equity Partners founder Robert Smith began his commencement address yesterday morning at Morehouse College in Atlanta, school president David Thomas was simply expecting to hear inspirational words, allowing "students to look to the stage and project themselves into the future." And then Smith announced that he would pay off all of their student loans.

Why it matters: As Thomas told me over the phone last night, "Robert ... sent a message that those of us with wealth in the African-American community who value institutions that distinctively serve the African-American community need to support those institutions."

Details: Smith's grant will be disbursed through Morehouse, which is now working to figure out how exactly to go about it.

  • The school's low-end estimate is that it will be worth a total of $10 million, while its upper end is $40 million.

More from Thomas:

"The way I think about Robert's gift is that it rewards those individuals who were committed to getting the best education they could at the best college they could attend, and who invested in themselves by taking on student debt. Our students are like individuals anywhere: There are probably other financial challenges they face not captured in this gift. But what he's essentially done is made these students free to make choices to follow their passions."

The big picture: Texas-based Smith is widely rumored to have political aspirations, although for now he's committed to an $11.4 billion fund Vista raised just last year.

  • In the meantime, Smith's Morehouse announcement officially changed his mass media descriptor from "private equity investor" to "philanthropist," and it put a further spotlight on America's student debt crisis.

Go deeper: How student debt causes lower incomes