Gift’s Spirit Priceless
ATLANTA — Even if you weren’t lucky enough to graduate from Morehouse College last Sunday, none of us is likely to forget billionaire Robert F. Smith anytime soon. At the end of his commencement address, Smith stunned the college’s 2019 graduating class, pledging to pay off their student debt. Smith is the founder of Vista Equity Partners and the richest black man in America. He can afford it, but so can a lot of other African-Americans. Morehouse President David A. Thomas knows that and hopes Smith’s donation will inspire others in the African-American community to make similar donations. “We have people in our community with significant wealth,” Thomas told radio host Joe Madison hours after Smith made the pledge. “If we look at how many HBCUs, for example, are struggling, I think you could make a case that our community, those of us with means have not prioritized supporting them, because many of them should not be struggling the way that they’re struggling.” Imagine the huge difference it would make if those of us with means made the effort to help struggling black students everywhere. Student loan debt is no joke. My oldest, who will graduate from medical school in a few weeks, is facing $200,000. The most she’ll likely make during her residency? About $60,000. Just in the past decade, student loan debt has doubled. And while some institutions have responded to the debt crisis by reducing or eliminating tuition, others just keep piling it on, raising tuition through the roof and pricing out a good many of us altogether. When I read recently that New York University School of Medicine would be free for current and future students, compliments of Home Depot co-founder Kenneth Langone and his wife, Elaine, I just about fainted. Not a lot of things make me feel envy, but that made dark-brown me green all over. Smith’s gift came with an attachment. “Let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward, because we are enough to take care of our own community,” he said. “We are enough to ensure we have all of the opportunities of the American Dream, and we will show it to each other through our actions and through our words and through our deeds.” You don’t have to be a billionaire to help. I think now of Oseola McCarty, the Mississippi washerwoman who in 1995 gave away her life’s savings — $150,000 — to the University of Southern Mississippi, my alma mater. Had it not been for her gift, none of us, perhaps, would have ever heard of McCarty, and certainly not in such a public way. I have no doubt she would have gone to her grave in 1999 without a mention. Yet McCarty’s story was so moving 600 people were inspired to add to her gift, giving as much as $300,000 more. Her story also prompted Ted Turner to donate $1 billion to the United Nations. According to Charity Navigator, $410.02 billion was donated to charities in 2017, with the largest source coming from individuals at $286.65 billion, or 70 percent; followed by foundations ($66.9 billion/16 percent), bequests ($35.70 billion/9 percent), and corporations ($20.77 billion/5 percent). Smith’s gift to the 369 Morehouse grads is still being calculated. Thomas said the figure will likely be in the tens of millions of dollars. Smith has a lot of money. So does Oprah Winfrey, who surprised a New Jersey high school two days earlier with a pizza party — and a $500,000 donation to an after-school program called Lights On. In the hours following Smith’s gift, one student after the other came forward to express their gratitude, promising to honor Smith’s kindness by paying it forward. Let’s hope it’s a promise kept. GRACIE BONDS STAPLES is a columnist for The Atlanta Journal Constitution.