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Paying off the student loans of an entire class is no easy task

During a commencement speech at Morehouse College May 19, billionaire Robert F. Smith said he would pay the class of 2019’s student loans. (Video: The Washington Post)

Billionaire Robert F. Smith stunned Morehouse College’s Class of 2019 when he pledged over the weekend to pay off their student loans. Details of the plan are forthcoming, but any effort to wipe away the education debt of hundreds of graduates will take more than simply writing a check.

Student loan repayment can be a complicated business, involving not only the borrower and the university, but also companies paid by the federal government or private lenders to service the debt. That means lots of paperwork and lots of people to dot i’s and cross t’s before Morehouse grads are debt-free.

“If they all had one servicer, that would make this logistically easier,” said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. "At a minimum, any payer would need some vitals from the borrower, the loan servicers, loan account numbers and payoff balance.”

During his commencement address Sunday at the Atlanta college, Smith, who declined to be interviewed, said his family would create a grant to pay off the loans of the graduating class. A representative for the philanthropist — a tech executive who is founder, chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners — said Monday that Morehouse will be responsible for administering the grant.

Morehouse officials said the college is figuring out the logistics and calculating the exact amount of student debt that will be erased.

The college’s financial-aid office will probably be charged with identifying eligible graduates and reaching out to their loan servicers to dispense the grant. The pledge covers only loans the students took out themselves, not those taken by their parents, according to Smith’s representative.

More than 90 percent of Morehouse students finance their education with a combination of scholarships, loans, grants and federal work-study jobs, according to the school. The total cost of attendance for the 2018-2019 academic year rang in at $48,500 for students living on campus and about $32,062 for those living at home.

Robert Smith will pay Morehouse graduates’ student loans. Will there be a tax bill to pay?

The private men’s college has a rich history of graduating African American leaders, most famously the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Morehouse attracts students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, with nearly 50 percent of the student body qualifying for federal Pell Grants for low-income students, according to the U.S. Education Department’s College Scorecard. But the school’s modest endowment of about $140 million is not enough to meet the financial need of its students, leading the vast majority to borrow.

Economics graduate Miles McLaughlin, 21, said he was a little overwhelmed when a financial-aid officer at Morehouse walked him through how long it might take to repay his $70,000 in student loans. That exit counseling session left him wondering whether he would need to go to graduate school to earn more money to be able to pay off the loans faster. But that would mean taking out even more loans.

“When I heard what Mr. Smith said, I was like, ‘My goodness, this is one less thing I have to worry about,' " said McLaughlin, who will be working as a consultant at Accenture in Charlotte beginning in August. "But more than anything, it has motivated me to lift as I climb, pay this generosity forward, give back to Morehouse and those coming after me.”

Smith had the speech he was going to deliver at the Morehouse commencement written days before the Sunday ceremony, according to a person familiar with Smith’s thinking, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak publicly. Smith had planned to focus his speech on empowerment and the responsibility of building community.

But on Saturday at a pre-commencement program, Smith learned something that caused him to revise his speech. At the Saturday program, Smith learned that more than 60 percent of Morehouse’s students fail to graduate, not because of their academics, but because of finances.

The number shook Smith, according to the person familiar with Smith’s thinking.

After he left the pre-commencement program and prepared to give his speech the following morning, Smith tried to figure out what he could do to address the financial plight of students. It was then he decided to pay the outstanding debt of the college’s graduating class. His reasoning? Paying it forward: By eliminating the graduates’ debt, Smith believed the graduates would then have more money to give back to Morehouse to ensure students have enough resources to finish school, the person familiar with his thinking said.

That’s exactly what Quintin Paschall, 21, said he hopes to do some day.

“This is how you use your power, your influence, your wealth to give back to your community. Robert Smith just did that for 400 of us and then gave us the opportunity to do that for someone else,” said Paschall, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English.