When recent Morehouse College graduate Kristopher Mathis moves to Chicago July 15 to start as a sales consultant at Amazon, he will not have to worry about student loans. That is because billionaire Robert F. Smith told the all-male Morehouse class of 2019 that he would pay off the student loans for the entire class of 396. The total amount Is estimated at $40 million.
Mathis, 21, who hails from the East English Village neighborhood on Detroit’s east side, and graduated from University of Detroit Jesuit High School in 2015, was looking at roughly $57,000 in student loan debt prior to Smith’s commencement speech May 19. Debt that could have taken him years to pay off was gone with 11 words from Smith’s mouth.
“I was shocked, and I had to take a double take,” said Mathis, who graduated cum laude, with a degree in business administration, with a concentration in marketing and a minor in sales. “I honestly couldn’t process what he had just said. Immediately after he said that, my mom texted me and told me to thank him. And that’s just what I did.
“When I was getting my diploma on stage, Mr. Smith was there. I shook his hand and told him that he was a true blessing, not only to myself, but to the other 395 brothers who were in my gradutiaon class.”
In the fall of 2015, 750 males started off as freshmen at Morehouse College, which has produced icons such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Spike Lee, Julian Bond, Herman Cain, and many others. By graduation day Sunday, only 396 walked across the stage in Atlanta. Mathis believes many students left because they could not afford the $50,000 per year it takes to study at Morehouse College.
“I know I couldn’t 50,000 a year,” said Mathis. “But my first year, I took that leap of faith, understanding that Morehouse was where I wanted to be. I created a plan for how I was going to get things paid for and in the end, God blessed me to where I don’t have to worry about that now, thanks to Mr. Smith and his generosity.”
Finances play a vital part in deciding which college to attend. For Mathis, he took the advice of his Midnight Golf Program mentors and others to get as many scholarships as he could. In the end, he took out a loan to cover part of his $50,000 per year costs for tuition, room and board at Morehouse. He credits that experience with helping him get serious his senior year of high school and is still close with his Midnight Golf friends and mentors.
The Midnight Golf Program was founded in 2001 by Reneé Fluker, a social worker and single mother who noticed the impact golf had on her son’s life. Today, the program serves 250 Detroit area high school seniors annually, participating in a 30-week curriculum to learn the game of golf, build relationships with mentors, and develop life skills required for college and career success. Midnight Golf helps seniors enter college and continues mentoring throughout college and into the graduates’ professional careers.
“Kris is one of our stars of Midnight Golf,” said Winston Coffee,College Liaison and College Success Coach for Midnight Golf. “You could tell early in our program that he was a determined young person and his choice of Morehouse made perfect since. We’ve been proud of his matriculation and watched as he seized opportunities in Atlanta. When we heard about the generous gift to the Morehouse graduates, we were thrilled for Kris and his family.”
Student loan debt has become a national crisis. Over 44 million borrowers owe more than $1.5 billion collectively and the student loan delinquency rate remains relatively high at 11.4 percent. Worse, more than 609,000 people owe more than $200,000 on their student loan, and 1.3 million owe between $100,000 and $150,000. It is a scary reality for many Americans, having to payback money for college they do not have.
For Mathis, he said he was blessed to only owe about $57,000 and not the six figures that others in his class owed prior to Smith’s gift. He comes from a middle-class working family and a large majority of his loans were taken out by his parents under the Parent PLUS loan program. It is not clear what all will be covered under Smith’s promise, but Mathis and his parents, Derrick and Printess, were all smiling after the news.
“A month or two from now, I was expecting to receive a bill from the government for my student loans,” said Mathis. “Now I can save more of my money and begin into invest in things that will make my money work for me. Ultimately, Mr. Smith has put me in a better financial situation, as well as my family.”
Mathis said he is proud to be a Morehouse man now and wants to reciprocate the gift Smith gave to him to future Morehouse graduates, maybe not in terms of money but through mentorship. But first, he wants to see Smith follow through with his own promise.
“I’m very curious to see the terms and conditions of Mr. Smith’s promise. I want to see the fine print,” said Mathis. “I know that he has the means and power to wipeout all the student loans debts and the Parent PLUS loans, but I’m hoping he follows through. That was a big statement to make and I’m looking forward to see how the process will play out.”
Morehouse College provided a statement on Smith’s financial promise. He received an honorary doctorate from Morehouse during the ceremony and had already announced a $1.5 million gift to the school.
“We, at Morehouse College, would like to thank Vista Equity Partners founder, Chairman & CEO Robert F. Smith, our honorary alumnus, for the surprise gift that he offered to the graduating class at Morehouse’s 135th Commencement ceremony. To be free from the financial burden of paying off student loans will be life-changing for the Class of 2019. Our Office of Business and Finance, as well as our Office of Enrollment Management, have been working diligently to calculate the student loan debt and other details of this gift. As soon as we have a final figure, we will share it with our new graduates so that they can continue on the path to careers and top-tier graduate schools student loan debt free.”