Morehouse ΦBKs Talk About Graduating Debt Free

During his May 19 commencement address at Morehouse College, billionaire investor and philanthropist Robert F. Smith, Founder, Chairman, and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, announced that he was eliminating the student loan debt for the entire 2019 graduating class.

“On behalf of the eight generations of my family that have been in this country, we’re gonna put a little fuel in your bus. This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans,” Smith said. “I know my class will make sure they pay this forward…and let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward because we are enough to take care of our own community.”

The largest private donor to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., Smith was the first and only African American business leader to sign “The Giving Pledge,” an initiative created by Bill and Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffett in which wealthy individuals pledge to give more than half of their wealth to humanitarian causes.

Smith’s pledge to repay the student loans for the college’s 2019 graduates, around 400 students, is estimated at $40 million.

“Potential is no guarantee of progress,” Smith wrote when he signed the pledge. “We will only grasp the staggering potential of our time if we create on ramps that empower ALL people to participate, regardless of background, country of origin, religious practice, gender, or color of skin.”

Phi Beta Kappa Secretary and CEO Frederick M. Lawrence said, “I have been deeply impressed with the academic program at Morehouse. This was one of the first campuses I visited after coming to Phi Beta Kappa, and it is clear that every year the chapter inducts students of great accomplishment in the liberal arts and sciences and enormous promise.”

“Robert Smith’s gift should be an inspiration to educational institutions, private philanthropy, and state and federal governments to continue to address the issue of access to and affordability of higher education in the United States,” Lawrence added.

David Morrow, Secretary of the ΦBK chaper at Morehouse commented, “As Delta of Georgia marches forward from our 50th anniversary, I am proud that these men get to begin with the fullness of the liberal arts education they received at Morehouse College along with the generous ‘fuel’ Dr. Robert F. Smith supplied them.”

“Regardless of major, liberal studies has readied these men to receive a degree . . . with a boost and go make a difference in this world,” Morrow noted. “The first student who responded to the invitation to join Phi Beta Kappa said, ‘I NOW feel like I am graduating!'” 

Phi Beta Kappa reached out to some of the Society’s newest members among the 2019 graduating class at Morehouse to gather their impressions on this momentous occasion and to ask how their view of the future has changed. 


ΦBK, Morehouse College, 2019

Bachelor of Arts Degree in Economics

Hometown: St. Louis, Missouri

Student loan debt affected my ability to be able to give back quicker to my mom, my siblings, and nephews. My dream of giving back and investing into not only my family but also black communities was seeming to become more of a far-fetched dream. I am now not only more confident in accomplishing my dream, but I am also able to allocate the extra capital I will have to serve my family and our communities. Now, the potential of my liberal arts and science degree being advanced is tremendous. I can save a lot more as I prepare for graduate school, and this gift that Robert F. Smith has granted our class also allows me to be better mentally prepared for graduate school.

Phi Beta Kappa is important because it encourages maintaining excellence. Through continuous learning provided through Phi Beta Kappa and the network of excellence, individuals are encouraged to constantly strive towards greatness. Phi Beta Kappa motivates individuals to perform useful work that will positively contribute to our economy. A well-rounded liberal arts and sciences education is important because it equips students with more knowledge that enables them to contribute to the world in a way that is unique to them.


ΦBK, Morehouse College, 2019

Bachelor of Arts Degree in Sociology

Hometown: Largo, Maryland

Before Mr. Smith graciously decided to pay off my class’s student loans, I was exploring side jobs to try to pay the loans back. I was budgeting large loan payments out of a graduate student budget, trying to accumulate as little interest as possible. Since receiving the news that my loans will be covered, I am now reallocating those funds elsewhere. I will be able to save more, support my younger brother as he goes through the college application process next year, and begin to make regular donations to my alma mater. 

As a liberal arts scholar and a newly minted member of Phi Beta Kappa I believe that Mr. Smith’s pledge to pay my loans will free me in my scholarly pursuits as I move into my next career path. As I transition to Brown University this fall to pursue my Ph.D. in Sociology, I will be able to fully dedicate myself to my studies without the pressure of working to pay back my loans. Mr. Smith’s gift has erased a generation of debt for almost 400 Black men, and the ripple effect of his generosity may very well be felt by millions of people.


ΦBK, Morehouse College, 2019

Bachelor of Science Degree in Computer Science, Summa Cum Laude

Double minor in Chinese Studies and Mathematics 

Hometown: Atlanta, Georgia

I’ve been fortunate to only incur a mild amount of debt compared to my brothers, but I have a nagging loan that’s been following me from freshman year. I’ve wanted to delete it for a while and found work at Microsoft to help get rid of it quickly so I can focus on my financial future and properly utilize my financial freedom. Released of that burden, I can immediately focus on how to best contribute to my alma mater and my communities as well as save up for my own dreams. I am also now able to use my education in computer science to invest in tech that matters to me and seed my ideas with less of the financial stress that come with entrepreneurship. 

Phi Beta Kappa and the liberal arts education provided by Morehouse are sure to make a strong foundation for such endeavors. The students that are a part of both institutions are held to a high academic bar in an environment where they are encouraged to focus on holistic development and will go on to pay Robert’s actions forward in ways that will inspire countless others the way we were during commencement.


ΦBK, Morehouse College, 2019

Bachelor of Arts Degree in Political Science

Minor in International Studies

Hometown: Atlanta, Georgia

My post-graduation plans were essentially dominated by the concept of having to parallel between finding careers that not just furthered my academic and professional goals, but also ones that had a service for forgiving or paying off my loans. It was not exactly difficult given what I had studied, my interests and my passion, but it was undue stress on my academic career as a whole, especially considering my eventual goals for a master’s and doctorate. With that essentially gone, I can purely focus not just on what I wish to study, but also on how I want to study what I love, and without any reservations about how it will affect my overall financial stability. In that spirit, I will continue with my plan to move into international service, and use that as a stepping stone to complete my master’s and doctorate.

As a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the ideals of knowledge and the study of the different aspects of the natural and philosophical world are imperative to all aspects of life. The potential of my degree had been fairly high before, but now it can be seen as significantly higher because of the investment that both the professional and the academic community have made in me. My liberal arts degree represents the established community believing both in what I study and the idea that my contributions will be worthy of that investment. I believe that the pledge is an action that aligns with the visions and goals of the Society, and it has given myself and my class the unprecedented opportunity of a lifetime. As a Phi Beta Kappa member, part of that potential is hoping that I can help foster that same love for knowledge in others and pay forward what has been gifted to me, whether it be academically or financially.  

I believe that given how quickly society is advancing and the rate at which new discoveries are made, it is important to remember to ask questions of “how” and “why” in the context of many of these discoveries and findings. This extends beyond one facet of society or a single area of study. It requires that people seek to advance their studies and areas of knowledge as much as possible to not just make decisions for the advancement of society, but the best decisions for future generations as well. Phi Beta Kappa exists to represent that and much more, so that when decisions are made that affect the academic and professional community, they come from places of research and facts. Being well rounded in your degree leads to having a better understanding of the world around you and how your impact shapes it. In conclusion, this Society and having a well-rounded liberal arts and sciences education is imperative to how society interacts with the world, learns from previous mistakes, and works toward a better future.


ΦBK, Morehouse College, 2019

Bachelor of Arts Degree in Drama

Hometown: Landover, Maryland

My post-graduation plans were accompanied with a slight reminder and sense of discouragement to know that I’ve worked so hard just to end up working even harder to pay off these loans. Luckily, I have decided to continue school, which will increase the time in which I have to begin paying off my loans, but even knowing that they were still there afterwards was a little discouraging. Now that the debt will be cleared, I am able to contribute to others—others being my institution, family, and even my children. I am also able to move more freely with my career goals and plans and can actually invest more into my projects and pursuits. 

My degree will be advanced because I now have a weight lifted off my shoulders, allowing me to soar to higher heights and assist others in doing the same. I am able to focus more on my continued studies and utilize what I’ve learned instead of worrying about the upcoming debt and tension that comes with those loan payments. 

I think that Phi Beta Kappa and a well-rounded liberal arts education are important in today’s world because the work inspires many to achieve great things, often through creative or artistic realms. Top scholars in Phi Beta Kappa are recognized and encouraged to excel to higher heights and spread knowledge to others. Liberal arts education has a foundation of discoveries, which can and always leads to changing the world and various environments. 


ΦBK, Morehouse College, 2019

Bachelor of Arts Degree in Kinesiology

Hometown: Lawrenceville, Georgia

My post-graduation plans were never affected by massive student debt. I was always blessed and fortunate to have a lump sum of my tuition and room and board payed for by way of an athletic scholarship with football, Hope academic scholarships, and Pell Grants. Although it may still seem like a lot of money, which it is, I was only $40,000 in debt. So my outright view of the future was not changed. My main plan and focus always was to attend graduate school after graduating from Morehouse and obtain my master’s degree in Health and Physical education from Georgia State University. The only difference now is that I am blessed and happy to say that I will be debt free. 

The potential of my liberal arts degree in kinesiology will go even further than what it would have gone originally. Now that I am, again, fortunate and blessed to say that I am debt free, I will be able to give back and “pay it forward” as Mr. Smith would say. One thing that I have always believed in and see as important as ever now is change. If you want change to happen, you must bring change, and in order to bring change you must not just talk about it but be about it. This is how I plan on furthering my degree now that I am debt free. 

I believe that Phi Beta Kappa and a well-rounded liberal arts and sciences education are important because of the history of distinction that comes with the education and honor society. Liberal arts teach us that it is okay to be interdisciplinary and seek out truths for ourselves. Secondly, this honor society is inspirational because I think about all of the great women and men before me that have achieved milestones that laid the foundation for me to contribute just a small piece to this world. 

Photo at top: Robert F. Smith at Morehouse College’s commencement ceremony, May 19, 2019.