Brandon Manor recalled when he first walked onto the Morehouse College campus in Atlanta four years ago on academic probation after he graduated from Dr. Henry Wise Jr. High School in Upper Marlboro.
Today, the 21-year-old college graduate joins nearly 400 Morehouse “brothers” in the Class of 2019 who will have existing student debt erased thanks to the family of billionaire and philanthropist Robert F. Smith. Manor said he accrued more than $100,000 in student loans.
“I screamed, I stood up, I smiled,” said Manor, who garnered a bachelor’s degree in psychology. “It was just an emotional moment for everyone. It’s kind of indescribable. It swept me off my feet.”
Smith, who donated $1.5 million to the college earlier this year, served as the all-male college’s commencement speaker Sunday, May 19. Near the end of his 35-minute speech, he said his family promised to eliminate an estimated $40 million in student loans for the graduates. It equates to about $100,000 per student.
Smith’s announcement sparked an explosion on social media, including a tweet from Bernice King, daughter of the late civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., himself a Morehouse alum.
“Wow. What a love-power move by Robert Smith. I believe it’s the start of something major. I’m grateful for what Mr. Smith, who purchased my father’s birth home for the National Park Service, is doing for @Morehouse, which happens to be daddy’s alma mater.”
Meanwhile, Manor and other D.C.-area students remain in euphoria and shock and can’t stop smiling.
“It took us a few seconds to process it. Then we all shouted, ‘MVP,’” said Quintin Paschall, 21, a 2015 high school graduate of McKinley Technology High School in Northeast who received a bachelor’s degree in English. “This wasn’t the icing on the cake. This was a whole new cake in itself. You will see a lot more dreams fulfilled coming out of the Class of 2019.”
Paschall, president of the college’s student government association, said Tuesday, May 21 he accrued only $7,000 in student loans during his senior year at the college. That’s because he earned scholarships his freshman year, his mother used her retirement funds toward his sophomore and junior years, and Morehouse paid for most of his tuition his last year as an undergraduate.
The gift also raises the question of student debt in America the Brookings Institution called a “crisis.”
Last year, the public policy organization in northwest D.C. analyzed Black college graduates with a bachelor’s degree in 2004 would have a debt of almost $64,000; compared to $27,770 to white graduates.
Adam Looney, a senior fellow with the institution, outlined several recommendations in an April letter to discharge student loans. Some of them include make income-based payment universal and automatic; prioritize loans for first- and second-year undergraduates; and dismiss small loan balances to eliminate burdens for millions of borrowers.
“There are many flaws in our student lending programs and too many borrowers are struggling with loans they can’t pay,” he said. “But that’s a call to fix the system, not scrap it.”
Thousands continue to pursue higher education as a means to achieve critical thinking, build a social network and increase opportunities for employment.
However, Morehouse alums proudly proclaim the school as one of the most unique Historical Black Colleges and University in the country.
Prince George’s County school board member Curtis Valentine, a 2000 Morehouse alum, summarized Freshmen are welcomed to the campus by a drum ceremony and then greeted by one during graduation.
“When you see 400 Black men march together and then you see 200 more alumni march together, the spirit will move you,” said Valentine, who attended Sunday’s commencement. “It is an understanding you are not just getting an education. You are part of a brotherhood.”
Valentine established a pipeline five years ago between Morehouse and Prince George’s Community College in Largo called the Diverse Male Student Initiative to offer mentorship, fellowship and academic assistance.
Darrell Larome, who graduated from Suitland High School in 2011, became the first student from the community college to graduate through the Morehouse pipeline.
Larome, 25, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in drama and will attend graduate school in a few months at Columbia University in New York City on a full scholarship.
He praised the achievement of his Morehouse classmates.
For instance, Paschall will head to New York in July to begin his teaching career at Excellence Boys Middle Academy Charter School in Brooklyn.
In September, Manor will conduct research for two years in the National Institutes of Health’s Intramural Research Training Award program in Bethesda. He plans to enroll in medical school.
“Morehouse really develops young men or boys into men that can impact this world in various forms and specialties,” Larome said. “The gift [from Smith] really does change lives to end the generational curse of debt that a lot of us have in the [Black] community. The more money we have available, we can contribute to our institutions, decrease debt … and increase scholarship opportunities for those in African American communities who can attend Morehouse College.”