'A Burning Indictment of Our Higher Ed System': Commencement Speaker Pays Off $40 Million in Student Debt

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.

“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,” tweeted Current 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.

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.

“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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