When Financier Robert Smith spoke at the Morehouse College graduation this weekend (May 19, 2019), he told the 400 graduating students that he intended to pay off all of their student loans, to the tune of roughly $40 million dollars. The surprise news rolled through the room like a tsunami. Smith hadn’t even told the faculty what he intended to do.
Watching big, grown men wiping away their tears or jumping up and down reminded me of how I felt fifty-five years ago in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan.
I was in my senior year at Brown University. My family had no money, and I had gone to Brown because they offered me the best financial package. A scholarship covered tuition (about $14,000 per year in today’s money). Room and board, books, etc were just about covered by a student loan ($2,400 in today’s dollars), a part-time job in the library ($3,000) and my summer earnings.
One morning in my sophomore year, the Dean of Financial Aid called me and asked if I would be willing to be a “Sloan Scholar.”
“What does that involve?” I asked.
“You get a free lunch today with a representative of the Sloan Foundation and $1,600 more a year in scholarship,” (adjusted for inflation).
I accepted of course, and for the next three years, a Foundation created by Alfred P. Sloan of General Motors fame, paid my way through college.
Then one day in my senior year, I received an invitation from the foundation to a weekend in New York, all expanses paid. Mr. Sloan had decided that before he died he wanted to meet some of the kids he had so generously helped. Four hundred of us from all over the country were in that ballroom when he came in.
We exploded. As he moved slowly, aided by a cane, to his seat the noise just got louder. This man had made college possible for all of us, and we were extremely grateful. I had never before been so filled with positive emotion.
The single largest contributor to Brown, according to Wikipedia, is a man named Sidney Frank, who was forced to leave Brown for financial reasons in the early 40s. When Gray Goose Vodka, which he had created, was successful, Frank donated $120 million to Brown, exclusively for financial aid.
The world is a better place because of the generosity of people like these.