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    When Students Graduate Debt-Free: A case study on the class of 2019 & "the Gift" Documentary

    June 10, 2024

    Originally published on

    Back in 2019, Freddie Williams Jr. had a lot on his mind at his college graduation: "That's when, you know, it started really kicking in – hey, this is how much you owe, you're gonna have to start paying this back," he said.

    Growing up on the south side of Chicago, he had dreamed of going to Morehouse, the historically Black college in Atlanta that counts Martin Luther King Jr. among its distinguished alumni. "Once I got accepted and saw that, hey, the money is being offered, [I] didn't have an idea of what I was really getting myself into," he said.

    And then at commencement, Williams got the surprise of a lifetime, when billionaire businessman Robert F. Smith pledged to pay the student loans for the entire class, clearing some $34 million in student and parent debt. "We're gonna put a little fuel on your bus," Smith said.

    Williams said, "It was crazy, you know? To look back and see my parents in the stands crying and celebrating. That's when I knew like, okay, this is big."

    He said his total debt – around $125,000 – was a "tremendous" weight to be lifted.190520-morehouse-college-mc-11002

    Total student loan debt in the U.S. is now nearly $1.8 trillion, and experts say many young people are delaying buying homes and starting families because of it. But the Morehouse Class of 2019 is something of an experiment: What could lives look like when students graduate debt-free?

    Filmmakers Joshua Reed and Emani Rashad Saucier, who were also part of the class of 2019, are making a documentary about how their classmates are faring thanks to that generous gift.

    "I think only now, as we get five years out, people realize the implication of what having no loans is," said Reed. "You can buy a house right after graduation, which people we've interviewed did. Someone started a nonprofit to get Black and Brown students into tech. Someone became a family man."

    Saucier said, "This is what happened at Morehouse: They got the debt cleared and they were able to have this exponential effect. What happens when we clear the debt for millions of Americans?

    Read and watch the full segment at


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