Jordan Long would've graduated from Morehouse College — the historically black, all male, university — with a degree in business and marketing this year. But he dropped out his sophomore year after he couldn't get another student loan co-signed.
The 22-year-old woke up a little late on Sunday, checked Twitter, and saw his former school was trending. As Long scrolled through his social media feeds, he realized that his former classmates were about to have all of their student debt wiped out by Robert Smith, the richest black man in the U.S. Forbes estimates his net worth at $5 billion.
"It really, really sucks," Long said. "I thought I knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life, and I had to leave it all behind.”
While Long was left behind by Smith's generous offer, which he announced during his commencement speech Sunday, this year's graduates were stunned. They immediately pulled out their phones and, before the speech was over, articles had been published. Still clad in their graduation gowns in the sweltering Atlanta, Georgia heat, graduates fact checked that their own student loans would be completely paid off.
“Some of us were like, ‘What did he just say?’” Charles Releford III, one of the 396 graduating seniors, told VICE News. “Most of us thought it was a joke, but people don’t really joke about things like that.”
Many of the graduates were saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. They said that suddenly graduating debt-free opens up possibilities that they couldn’t have imagined a day ago.
“It’s like our whole lives have been reset. I feel like I’m almost born again,” said Shaquille Lampley, a 24-year-old graduate who had taken on at least $220,000 in student loan debt to attend Morehouse.
"I feel like I’m almost born again."
Lampley was supposed to graduate two years ago but had to take time off to help his mom out financially after she lost her job. That, coupled with Lampley’s father being sentenced to 60 years in prison, meant that he no longer qualified to take out additional loans. In fact, he’d had to crowdfund $12,000 in the six days leading up to graduation to pay off his tuition and receive his diploma.
“I don’t even know if I can find words to really describe it because it’s so hard to fathom that it actually happened,” Lampley said. “I’m elated, man. Debt-free.”
Tuition, plus room, board, and other college expenses usually run students an average of $48,000 a year, the school’s president, David A. Thomas, told the Washington Post. About 90 percent of undergrads at Morehouse get some amount of financial aid, but the average graduating debt for the class of 2016 was over $24,000, according to the school’s data.
“This makes going back to school for another degree a lot more possible. I was thinking before I know I want to go back and get my masters’ in fine arts, but I would already be really, really, really deep in debt from undergrad,” Releford said. “Now that I don’t have to worry about that, I could probably go back to school immediately.”
While their own debt has been erased, this year’s Morehouse grads can’t ignore the other students still grappling with the lack of affordable higher education. After all, they had to deal with it themselves when they took out the loans that Smith said he’ll pay off.
“I want everybody to be able to experience what I just experienced,” Lampley said. “I personally feel that education should be, if not slightly alleviated, then free.”
The students said that they weren’t yet informed of how, exactly, Smith and Morehouse are going to go about erasing their student debt. As of now, the school is calculating the total loans held by the graduating class. In past years, the student debt accrued by a class at Morehouse has been around $10 million.
Smith, the billionaire philanthropist and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, keeps a relatively low profile as an Austin-based tech investor. He’s a notoriously private person but does have a bit of a showy streak. He reportedly owns one of Elton John’s pianos and got John Legend to perform at his wedding on the Amalfi Coast in Italy.
“Now, I know my class will make sure they pay this forward,” Smith told the class during his speech. “Let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward, because we are enough to take care of our own community.”
But in Long’s mind, the same system that allowed Smith to pay off everyone’s debt also burdened him in the first place.
"If he had been paying more taxes, and we had more laws that valued all people, I wouldn't have had to leave Morehouse in the first place," Long said of Smith. “We shouldn't have billionaires in the first place.”
Long is working toward two associates degrees — one in business, another in sociology — in Oakland, California. He’s still working to pay off more than $50,000 in debt from Morehouse.
A friend suggested that Long make a GoFundMe to draw attention to his situation. He's only raised $40 in the past day.
Cover image: ATLANTA, GEORGIA - MAY 19: Robert F. Smith gives the commencement address during the Morehouse College 135th Commencement at Morehouse College on May 19, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)