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‘A burning indictment of our higher ed system’: Commencement speaker pays off $40 million in student debt — but there’s a bigger story

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Billionaire’s gift to nearly 400 graduating seniors of Morehouse College earned him praise—but also sparked criticism of the cost of education

Commencement speaker Robert F. Smith garnered widespread praise Sunday when the billionaire investor announced he will wipe out an estimated $40 million in student debt for Morehouse College’s nearly 400 graduating seniors—but the move also sparked intense criticism of the cost of higher education in the United States.

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“People shouldn’t be in a situation where they depend on a stranger’s enormous act of charity for this kind of liberation to begin with.”
—Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

“Two things are simultaneously true about this story: 1. This is a very cool thing to do,” tweetedCurrent Affairs editor Sparky Abraham. “2. That this is so cool and necessary and has such a huge impact on the students’ lives is a burning indictment of our higher ed system.”

“The Morehouse graduating class has $40 million in student debt,” he continued. “That is an enormous tragedy.”

Smith’s announcement Sunday at the all-male, historically black college in Atlanta, Georgia provoked impassioned calls for both making higher education free across the country and canceling student debt.

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Abraham, in a piece for Current Affairs last month, argued: “Free college is the efficient, non-stigmatizing way to open up college access for everyone without the burdens of means-testing. It doesn’t have to be regressive and, with any luck, it will follow the path of free high school: In short order it will be nearly universally accepted as a public good and a huge boon to everyone, especially those from poorer and working class backgrounds.”

Responding to Smith’s donation on Sunday, Waleed Shahid of Justice Democrats tweeted, “Taxing billionaires and Wall Street would allow every American to go to college for free while also canceling almost all student debt.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) suggested in a series of tweets that this could serve as a “natural experiment” to demonstrate how lack of student debt impacts graduates’ lives.

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“It’s important to note that people shouldn’t be in a situation where they depend on a stranger’s enormous act of charity for this kind of liberation to begin with (aka college should be affordable),” the congresswoman added.

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“I’ve been teaching [at] Morehouse for 3 years now and I see firsthand the burden of costs for an education has on black folks,” David Dennis Jr., a writer and adjunct professor of journalism at the college, said in a series of tweets. “Getting rid of their student loan debt is going to literally change the lives of every single graduate. Incredible.”

Dennis also called attention to the banks and predatory lenders that will receive the estimated $40 million:

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One graduating Morehouse student interviewed by The Associated Press, 22-year-old finance major Aaron Mitchom, racked up $200,000 in loans, which eight of his family members co-signed so he could make it through four years of schooling.

Mitchom said that prior to Smith’s announcement, he used a spreadsheet to figure how long it would take to pay off his debt—per his calculations, it worked out to 25 years at half his monthly salary.

Describing his reaction at the ceremony on Sunday, Mitchom told the AP: “I don’t have to live off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I was shocked. My heart dropped. We all cried. In the moment it was like a burden had been taken off.”

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Linking to the AP report that features Mitchom, New York Times writer Astead Herndon tweeted, “Yes, the Morehouse story is a beautiful moment provided by an unequal system.”

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