At first, Athena Cross was sure she’d somehow misheard. As she sat in the sunshine at her son’s graduation ceremony at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where billionaire tech investor Robert F. Smith was addressing the 2019 graduating class, Smith suddenly made a stunning announcement: His family would create a grant to eliminate the student loans of the class of nearly 400 young men sitting before him.
Cross’s older son, Tyler, had graduated from college just a few days earlier. Now her younger son, Cameron, was graduating from Morehouse, and although she was overwhelmed by pride, she’d also spent weeks worrying about what their family’s future might look like: Cameron would graduate with nearly $150,000 in debt, and Cross — a single, divorced mom who owns a D.C. health-care consulting company — was still working toward her own PhD in public health. Tyler had also taken out student loans to help pay for tuition at his private college in Pennsylvania. Cameron, a sociology major, dreamed of becoming a civil rights lawyer, which would mean law school, and still more debt. How were they going to shoulder such a vast financial burden?
When Smith said those words — “My family is going to create a grant to eliminate your student loans” — Cross remembers the realization rippling through the crowd in a swift crescendo: a moment of stunned silence, then a murmur as everyone turned to one another — wait, did he really say that? — followed by an eruption of shouts and cheers as everyone leaped to their feet.
Cross spoke with The Washington Post about what that moment meant for her family, and how she hopes Smith’s generosity will continue to highlight the issue of student loan debt in the United States. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: So you're a PhD candidate yourself, getting your degree in public health policy at UNC Chapel Hill, and you've put two sons through college as a single mom. Can you talk a bit about what that's been like for your family?
A: Having gone to undergraduate and graduate school myself and having paid off my own loans already, I certainly understood the value of education and what it’s meant to me in my career, and the life that we’ve been able to have as a family. When both of my children were in college, I decided to start my own business, and at the same time I also decided to go back to school and get my doctorate, so it ended up that we all were in school at the same time. Student loans were the only way I had to make this happen, and I ended up having to be the one who took on all the responsibility of shouldering their debt, and it has been very challenging. I wasn’t sure what we were going to do now that they have both graduated, and those loans were going to start to become due.
Q: What was it like for you at that moment when you heard Robert F. Smith announce he was going to pay off the student loan debt for this entire graduating class?
A: It was the same thing that’s going through my head now; it still just seems very surreal. The whole place just exploded with emotion, and it was quite beautiful to watch and to be a part of. I heard the words, I heard what he was saying, but it was just so difficult to process that someone would be so generous. How? How does someone do something like this? Cameron and I spent time after graduation talking about it, and it’s still taking a lot for it to sink in. It just feels unbelievable that something like this would really happen. It would have been such a burden for Cameron and for me, too. We’re still working through it.
Q: And what was Cameron's reaction?
A: I wasn’t able to see his face, but as soon as he saw me he came up to me and started to cry. He and I had spent the last month or so trying to talk through him interviewing for jobs, and his main concern this entire time was, “I need to be able to get a job that I can afford to pay off my student loans and still be able to afford to live,” and as a parent that’s so disheartening to have to hear, but I appreciated how pragmatic he was being. Now he can pursue things that are in line with his dreams instead of in line with his debt, and there are no words to express the gratitude for that level of freedom.
Q: In his comments, Dr. Smith emphasized that he wanted his gift to set an example and that the students would find ways to pay that generosity forward. What does that mean to Cameron?
A: He and his classmates have already gotten together to create a fund — each of the graduates are going to give $100 to create a book fund for students to help pay for their books, so he’s already trying to put together some structure for how he and his friends can do something to pay it forward. And then, you know, he is naturally someone who is concerned about community and community service; he wants to be able to put together a career that will allow him to work on civil rights, particularly around education, around helping individuals and communities overcome injustices. This is who he is as a person, and I have every expectation that he’ll accomplish these goals.
Q: Smith's gift also inevitably highlights the issue of systemic inequalities surrounding student loan debt, which is a topic that is getting a lot of national and political attention right now. What are your thoughts on that, and what do you hope might come from the attention and excitement generated by this story?
A: There are two things I’d like to see: I’d like to see other wealthy individuals or groups of wealthy individuals come together and do something similar; they don’t have to relieve an entire class’s debt, but if people could just show up and be mentors, or provide internship opportunities, just taking personal responsibility and coming back to help someone else, that would be wonderful. Because this whole process is filled with so many disparities, and it’s particularly young children of color who start out disadvantaged.
The other part is, I hope we can push our elected officials and everyone who is running for president to make a commitment to, at a minimum, having our public state schools be free for undergraduate education. I’m from the U.K., and college admission is subsidized there. I do believe it’s difficult for anyone to be able to have a career that has a living wage without the very basics of an undergraduate education. I know that that would take a lot of subsidizing from the federal government, but I believe it’s the best way to give our kids a fighting chance.