South Sound News

Tacoma grad was $150,000 in debt until billionaire offered to pay off his student loans

Photo of Graves Hall, the first building on Morehouse's present campus via Wikimedia Commons.

Will Roberson racked up nearly $150,000 in student loans while attending Morehouse College in Atlanta.

When the Bellarmine Preparatory grad from Tacoma sat down for his graduation ceremony on May 19, he was preparing for years of scrimping and saving as he began his career in business management.

By the time the ceremony was over, Roberson, 21, was on his way to being debt-free.

Commencement speaker and billionaire Robert Smith announced during his keynote address that he was paying off the student loans of all of Morehouse's 400 graduates.

Morehouse is an all-male, historically black college where annual tuition, housing and other costs run around $50,000.

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Smith is the nation's wealthiest African American, with an estimated net worth of $5 billion, according to Forbes. The tech investor has emerged from relative obscurity in recent years to become one of the nation's top donors to African American institutions and causes.

Officials at Morehouse said they were unaware of Smith’s plan until he announced it in his speech. The total value of the gift is estimated to be $40 million.

Smith said the debt relief will come in the form of a grant. Financial experts said however Smith ends up paying off the debt, it will be complicated. Students like Roberson could be on the hook for income taxes in some scenarios.

Whatever form it takes, Roberson calls it a blessing.

Roberson grew up in Tacoma from the fourth grade on, the son of an orthopedic surgeon father and college professor mother.

“My parents both had post-graduate degrees and always stressed the importance of education,” Roberson said. “Anytime I wanted to go play sports and do anything extracurricular, I always had to make sure my homework was done.”

Roberson played football at Bellarmine and was the team’s quarterback during his senior year. He graduated in 2015.

Morehouse was not Roberson’s first choice for college. His father was a graduate, and his older brother was a student there.

“I really didn’t want to go to Morehouse because I had seen it really all my life,” Roberson said. Instead he started at Norfolk State University in Virginia in fall 2015.

What he saw during a trip to Morehouse during his first semester changed his mind.

“Young black men that were eager to learn, eager to change the world,” he recalled. “That really inspired me.”

He calls attending Morehouse the best decision he’s ever made.

“It was an amazing experience I wouldn’t trade for the world,” Roberson said.

But, there was that debt.

“For a while I’ll have to pay off my debt,” he recalled. “I might be in the hole. I might have to struggle.”

Roberson knows people in their 30s and 40s who are still paying off student loans.

May 19 dawned hot on the Morehouse College campus.

“We were tired, I hadn’t slept in a few days,” he said.

When Smith made his announcement, it took a while for the news to sink in.

“I wasn’t sure what I was hearing,” Roberson said.

Reactions ranged from shock to ecstasy among the graduates.

It wasn’t until he saw the story appear on news outlets across the country did the full magnitude of the gift come clear.

“It was so unexpected and a tremendous blessing,” he said.

Roberson would like to be an entrepreneur and financial adviser.

“I’m still weighing my options and my offers,” he said. Whatever he does, he knows he’s been handed a life-changing gift.

“I feel like I’ve gotten a head start on life,” he said. “This is a huge burden lifted off my back.”

Smith said he hopes the Morehouse graduates will take his gift and pay it forward.

Roberson and his classmates are already working on a plan to fund scholarships for the incoming class of 2023, he said.

“We want to keep this train rolling to help the future generations of Morehouse College,” Roberson said.