Robert Smith paying Morehouse students' debts is about more than just money. It gives them professional freedom.

These students get to truly dream about the possibilities of living a life for a purpose rather than a paycheck.
Image: Graduates celebrate after philanthropist Robert F. Smith said he would provide money to cancel the graduating classes student loan debt at Morehouse College in Atlanta on May 19, 2019.
Graduates celebrate after philanthropist Robert F. Smith said he would provide money to cancel the graduating classes student loan debt at Morehouse College in Atlanta on May 19, 2019.Steve Schaefer / Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Michael Arceneaux

At Howard University a little over a decade ago, Oprah Winfrey was my commencement speaker; her speech has been rightly celebrated as one of the greatest commencement speeches ever. And in the minutes, hours, days and weeks that followed, I clung to the words “So have no fear. Have no fear. God has got your back.”

And then my private student loans soon not merely pushed me against the wall, but also swatted me to the ground; I’ve been trying to stand taller ever since. I have stumbled every single day since the gravity of my choice to fund my education in pursuit of dreams of a better life for myself and my family has become all the more apparent.

The weight of graduating with six-figure debt has impacted my life in ways I was unable to foresee; for the sake of succinctness, let’s say that it really, really sucks. That’s why, as much as I am envious of the 2019 graduating class of Morehouse College — whose student loan debt will be paid off by their commencement speaker, billionaire investor and philanthropist Robert Smith — I am mostly just happy for them.

These students get to truly dream about the possibilities in a time when doing so is expensive. The costs that come with daring to pursue what will not just provide you with a living but a purpose are not expenses that those of us who come from the most vulnerable communities can afford for very long. Life can quickly shift from one consumed with potential to one filled with peril when it comes to loans.

As one Morehouse graduate, Brandon Manor, told the New York Times: “ Now all of a sudden, I can look at schools I might not have considered, because I am not applying with about $100,000 in undergraduate loans.”

Paying these students debts can have a real impact on the change they can be in the world. “This could be the start of what’s known in Econ as a ‘natural experiment,’” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted Sunday, referring to Smith’s gracious act. “Follow these students & compare their life choices [with] their peers over the next 10-15 years.”

Notably, though, Smith's act of generosity comes a time when the U.S. government is stepping up its efforts to collect on student loan debt even as it does nothing to combat its origins (and how those factors hurt Black college students and graduates the most).

Not only is tuition far higher across the board than it used to be, but as the Wall Street Journal reported last month, historically Black colleges and universities have been especially impacted by the student debt crisis. HBCUs have smaller endowments — partly because their graduates' debts take precedent. Students who attend private institutions like Morehouse College, where tuition was $25,368 in the latest academic year, and other expenses (including room and board, books and fees) push the total cost of attendance to nearly twice of that, are more likely to take out loans than their non-private HBCU counterparts.

Still, no matter the school, Black students take on 85 percent more debt than their white counterparts and, by virtue of American racism, find themselves paid less than them after they leave college. This is all happening as Black college graduation rates have hit an all-time high.

So, while I want to believe God is there for us on some level, the divine intervention presently being so widely discussed is due to the charitable action of capitalism’s sole deity, the kindly billionaire, and not broadly replicable.

Some churches like Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, also recently made headlines for paying off the student loan debt of parishioners. And, of course, Oprah herself has given students $13 million in scholarships and put 400 men through Morehouse. Both are commendable, but there’s something frustrating about church folks and billionaires resolving, on a case-by-case basis, a systemic issue that has long proven to hurt Black people the most.

Mostly, though, students like me are told to work hard and hope. Morehouse students were, too, just one day before their debts were canceled, at their baccalaureate service on how to reckon with the presumed reality awaiting them.

Its speaker, E. Dewey Smith, a Morehouse alum who now serves as senior pastor at The House of Hope Atlanta and The House of Hope Macon, encouraged graduates to not worry over their job and housing prospects or, of course, the student loan payments with looming due dates. Smith himself was quite familiar with the financial troubles that college can cause students. "I was out of school for about a year when I was in college because I didn't have the finances, so I knew how difficult the struggle was," Smith explained in an interview with Macon, Georgia’s WGXA news.

Yet, Smith persevered, and in doing so, was able to stand before them with the message to trample their fears with faith, hope and hard work. But the enormity of student loan debt is not the same as it was when Smith graduated from Morehouse in 1993.

That’s not to say Smith or Oprah were wrong in their messaging. Hope is often all many of us have to lean on to overcome the obstacles circumstances largely beyond our control have created. Fear, no matter how valid, isn’t that useful of a tool in such an endeavor. I have tried to remain hopeful in the midst of my mess of a life.

The only presidential candidate, though, who has specifically addressed the plight of not just the student debt crisis, but how it impacts Black people specifically is Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who in April announced a plan for universal free public college, the cancellation of student loan debt and $50 billion in funding solely to HBCUs.

If billionaires are feeling inspired by Robert Smith’s and would like to join him in his philanthropy, let the record state that — while I’m all too aware that much of this excess of funds can be directly traced to a lack of fair taxation (something for which Warren also has a plan) — I gleefully volunteer my balances. But even an elimination of my student loan debt wouldn’t blind me to the crisis at hand and the fact that it requires bold, decisive action from the government, not just billionaires. It shouldn’t blind anyone else either.