Morehouse College president David A. Thomas talks during the 134th commencement exercises at the college in Atlanta on Sunday, May 20, 2018. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: Steve Schaefer
Photo: Steve Schaefer

Morehouse president: Gift has sparked interest from donors, students

Morehouse College President David A. Thomas said Tuesday the school has seen an increase in interest from potential students and donors since billionaire Robert F. Smith’s surprise announcement that he’ll pay the debt of each student who graduated this semester.

Smith’s business team is working with the college to determine how to make the payments for the 396 students who graduated Sunday. The two men talked Tuesday morning, Thomas said. Initial estimates said it could cost up to $40 million to pay the debt. Thomas and others have said a gift to pay student debt in this fashion is unprecedented. Smith announced the gift in his commencement speech.

“We have to make sure that this is done correctly because if we don’t there can be tax liabilities,” Thomas said in a telephone interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Thomas, who in 2018 became president of the Atlanta college created to educate African American men, said Morehouse is already getting interest from students hoping to become part of its freshman class more than a year from now, in fall 2020.

Thomas described the international attention concerning the gift as a “whirlwind.”

“It’s been an avalanche of people saying how significant this gift is not only for Morehouse, but for the African American community to see a philanthropist like Robert Smth say this institution and others like it are worthy of support at the highest level,” he said.

The attention has generated conversations about rising college costs and student loan debt, particularly at historically black colleges and universities like Morehouse. Many of its 2,200 students come from low-income households and most receive federal financial aid. HBCUs do not get as much in donations from major philanthropists, research shows. The total cost to attend Morehouse is about $48,000 a year, Thomas said.

Thomas said the college and its partner schools in the Atlanta University Center are exploring ways to cut costs for students and the schools by creating a data analytics institute to avoid offering similar courses in that field and sharing software platforms to purchase materials.

Smith’s gift, Thomas said, has “created a momentum that I can assure you we will not squander.”

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