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Billionaire Robert F. Smith Pledges To Repay Loans For 2019 Morehouse College Class


The surprise announcement started this way.


ROBERT F SMITH: On behalf of the eight generations of my family who have been in this country, we're going to put a little fuel in your bus.

KELLY: A little fuel in your bus - that is billionaire investor Robert F. Smith delivering yesterday's commencement address at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he also picked up an honorary doctorate.


SMITH: This is my class, 2019.


SMITH: And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.


KELLY: You can hear the reaction from the crowd there. Even Morehouse's president looked surprised and overjoyed. Shortly afterwards, Professor Ibram Kendi of American University tweeted this. With student debt disproportionately strangling black people, this is major. And Professor Kendi joins us now. Hey, there.

IBRAM KENDI: Hey, good to be on your show.

KELLY: Good to have you with us. So you've gotten to know Mr. Smith these last few years. Did you have any idea this was in the works, this plan to wipe out student debt for the nearly 400 graduating seniors at Morehouse?

KENDI: (Laughter) No, he kept it very close to his vest.

KELLY: Yeah. And talk to me what you meant by that - that tweet that I quoted, when you say that student debt disproportionately strangles black people. What are you seeing happening with black college grads?

KENDI: Well, I mean, the studies have consistently showed, of course, that United States has a huge student debt problem. And some studies have begun to show us that it's disproportionately harming black college graduates. And when you have higher amounts of student debt, it prevents you from buying a home earlier. It prevents you from potentially starting a business earlier. And so essentially, it prevents you from building wealth earlier. And so for me, that's almost like you're strangled. So of course, this gift will allow those students to potentially do those things and create generational wealth.

KELLY: What kind of impact do you foresee beyond the 400 students directly impacted - because as you nod to there, student debt is a systemic problem. Do you see this gift as rocking the system?

KENDI: That's what I hope. I think there's been many different conversations around this gift. And one of the conversations has certainly been that this is such a huge problem. Philanthropy shouldn't necessarily have to be solving it. But since it is a problem, you know, I'm so happy that Robert stepped up to at least help out these students. And I'm hoping that other philanthropists will follow his lead.

KELLY: I want to let you respond to something else he said in his address. As he spoke yesterday, Robert Smith told the story of his childhood education, that he was bused for several years to a high-performing, predominantly white school. And he talked about how differently he thinks his life turned out compared to others who weren't bused across town. Here's a bit of that section of the speech.


SMITH: Everything about my life changed because of those few short years. But the window closed for others just as fast as it opened for me. And that's the story of the black experience in America.

KENDI: Yeah. And I think what he is saying ultimately is that he was provided opportunity. And he took advantage of that opportunity. You know, one of the things that he's sought to do with his philanthropic work is to create those opportunities because he believes in the people. He doesn't think there's something wrong with black people as much as there's something wrong with our lack of opportunities.

KELLY: Ibram Kendi, I want to say thank you so much for taking the time and explain. There's a little bit of noise behind you. We've caught you on the road at an airport. So thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us today.

KENDI: You're welcome. Yeah, thank you for bringing me on the show.

KELLY: Ibram Kendi, he studies racism and anti-racism at American University. And he is a friend of philanthropist Robert F. Smith. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.