Billionaire and Morehouse College commencement speaker Robert Smith’s announcement that he would personally absolve the student debt of the school’s entire graduating class this year—a gift of historic proportions well into the tens of millions of dollars—has raised a lot of questions about equity, fairness, and the virtue of charity versus public funding.
But at this point, the New York Times reported today, the storied historically black college and the students receiving the gift are just trying to figure out how it’s going to work. Per the Times:
At the end of a graduation celebration on Sunday night, Shaquille Lampley returned to his dorm room on campus, opened the computer and stared at his student loan estimates. They totaled more than $200,000 in loans taken out by his mother, covering six years in school. “I just kept looking at the number and thinking to myself, this would cripple me for life,” said Mr. Lampley, 24, who earned a degree in sociology. “I am so grateful and still in shock about this gift, and now I have so many questions about how this will be processed.”
Among the questions: Are all student loans included? Does the pledge include loans taken out by the graduates’ parents? What about gifts from home equity loans?
According to the Times, even Morehouse College president David Thomas didn’t get a heads up that Smith would make the commitment during his speech. “We know that Mr. Smith is going to erase the debt of the 396 students who received diplomas,” Thomas told the Times. “What we have not determined yet is the form or mechanism and the details on how this will happen. We will be meeting in the coming days.”
The reason that figuring this out is so difficult is because it’s meant to be difficult. Student loans, by their very nature, are not meant to be paid off in one giant lump sum. They’re meant to be paid off over the course of several decades, as interest gathers on the cost of the initial loan every day. I recently paid off the remnants of the one private loan I took out for college, a $6,000 loan made to me in 2009, and my credit score immediately went down.
This is not the fault of Robert Smith, who seems like a generous guy who just relieved nearly 400 young people of a soul-crushing burden, even if he does oppose eliminating a tax loophole that could absolve the debt of many more students. It is definitely not the fault of the students. This is the fault of a system that’s allowed the partnership of colleges and loan companies to monetize higher education, and a government that has not only allowed it, but often encouraged it.
In the Times story, one student, Myles Washington, even said that he feels “survivor’s guilt” due to receiving the gift. “There were students that were here that were just as smart and just as talented as us that didn’t have the opportunity because they had to leave early,” Washington said. It doesn’t help that the average black student graduates with thousands more in debt than the average white student.
On one hand, he’s right: as the Times clarified, the pledge won’t benefit students who didn’t finish their education at Morehouse. On a very base level, however, having little or no student debt after college shouldn’t feel like something akin to winning the lottery, or the Hunger Games. It should feel normal.
Plans put forward by Democratic presidential candidates, including Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, range from tackling the crisis for those it’s already hurting— absolving the debts of those who need it most—to heading off the problem at the start by providing free college tuition.
Charity is nice. At this point, however, charity won’t cut it. What we need is a system that not only prioritizes education and students above money, but removes the profit motive from higher education entirely. Students graduating from Morehouse with no debt shouldn’t be seen as a heartwarming tale of philanthropic capitalism, or unfair, or a reason to have a national debate. It should be normal, and it can be.