A Morehouse grad on the 'surreal' moment his student debt was erased

Photo Courtesy of Ellis Walton.

On May 19, 396 students graduated from Morehouse College, an all-male historically black college in Atlanta, Georgia. During the commencement ceremony, the students learned that the entire class's estimated $40 million in student loan debt would be paid off by billionaire Robert Smith. Smith's announcement came in the midst of a student debt crisis, one that has nearly doubled in the last ten years.

“On behalf of the eight generations of my family that have been in this country, we’re gonna put a little fuel in your bus,” Smith said during his commencement speech. "This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”

According to the New York Times, Smith has been concerned about the student debt crisis for some time, and made the decision to pay off the loans for Morehouse's 2019 class after learning he would be receiving an honorary degree from the institution.

In total, Americans currently owe over $1.5 trillion in student loans, and it is estimated that black students take out roughly $7,400 more per year in loans than white students.

As the costs of advanced education continue to rise, historically black colleges and universities are especially struggling. According to Vox, HBCUs have had to raise tuition dramatically, partially due to the low endowments they have compared to other universities. The issue has become so severe that two presidential candidates, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris, have proposed policies to address funding HBCUs.

Even as someone newly freed from his debt, Morehouse grad Ellis Walton, 21, knows that student loans impact people more than himself and his fellow classmates – it is a national issue. In a conversation with Mic, Walton said he plans to go into public service after attending law school and has spent time thinking about what access to higher education means for himself and his community.

Walton grew up on the Eastside of Atlanta in a middle-class household, and as he was finishing high school, he looked forward to attending an HBCU. He was excited to attend Morehouse, which he describes as "a college that produces leaders for the black community as well as the world." Over a phone call with Mic shortly after he graduated, Walton shared his thoughts on what being a member of Smith's 2019 class means to him.

Why did you choose to go to Morehouse?

I am an Eagle Scout. I love community service. I'm very passionate about politics and just politics service and community. I applied to Morehouse senior year because I saw a historical tradition of just producing black men who went out and just changed the world and bettered their community and I knew I wanted to be part of that. I just didn't see any other schools that could really offer me that type of transformation. Morehouse did. I've transformed politically, socially, intellectually. I've been to various countries across the world. I'm actually going to law school in the fall, Howard Law School.

Was it a difficult decision to take out loans for school?

Morehouse is $47,000 and my parents... Well my mom is retired, and my father, he was an iron worker, so they weren't making over $90,000 a year. With two kids in the house, $47,000 is a lot of money a year. And so I was initially admitted with a $5,000 scholarship but that wasn't enough. I was very close to not attending Morehouse until I was awarded a $15,000 scholarship from Oprah Winfrey, who has an endowment at Morehouse College. That program — Oprah Winfrey Scholars Program at Morehouse — really changed my life.

I received $500 from my high school. Another $500 from my church. And I think it was $1,000 from a minister named Sandra Riley. And so I was able to pay around half tuition my first year. Then my second year I was given the Hope Scholarship, so every year I would have about half of tuition basically paid off. The rest I would have to do in loans, me and my mother. I ended up taking out around $24,000 in loans. My mom's got around $50,000 in loans. So $70,000 in debt coming out of college and looking to go to law school was a little scary. I was still thinking that I could pay it off after a decade or two. Probably two decades. But I was just still happy to be at Morehouse.

Photo Courtesy of Ellis Walton, pictured second from left.

How did you feel when Robert Smith announced that he was going to pay off your loans?

When [Smith] told us, it just felt so surreal. I was really amazed, I was thankful, and just glad that God gave us the opportunity to have this. The students, we were in the front. As soon as he said that we just lit up, like just shocked. But I know for my family members who were there, some of them didn't hear it and they didn't know until I told them. So by the time commencement was over the Atlantic Journal-Courier and some celebrities had already posted his announcement on social media and it was going viral. It was just crazy. Because then I had people from church and people from other schools across the nation that I know hitting me up on social media, texting me, and just saying congrats. So I was just happy; it was a great day. And now that reality is just setting in.

Now that you don't have to worry about your debt, what does your future look like?

Well, one thing's for certain, I'm just glad my mom is going to be able to have that guilt lifted off of her. I was always thankful for her going out on a limb and taking out that type of money for me. But now I'm glad she's able to divert her retirement fund just toward her living a better, more satisfactory life. She's done a lot. She's really come from nothing.

I'm also glad that now I can just focus on what I have to pay towards law school; I'm also interested in going into politics. I know there's controversy around Stacey Abrams having a lot of debt and that's because she went to schools like Spelman and Yale that are top tier. She got a lot of flak for the student loan debt that she racked up because of that. I'm glad that I won't have to face those same problems. I'm grateful I can focus more on just helping my family members, pursuing my education, and just building a better future for myself, and the world, my community.

Photo Courtesy of Ellis Walton, center.

HBCUs across the country are struggling financially. What did Smith's donation signify to you?

It follows a sort of tradition. Robert Smith, he's a part of the black bourgeoisie and schools like Morehouse, Spelman, Tuskegee, Clark Atlanta, Hampton, Howard, [and] a lot of our founding was dependent on the black bourgeoisie just reaching back and helping those who had less than them. It's a great act; It's what should be expected from people who have the amount of wealth and resources that Robert Smith has. And I'm glad he [did this for] a historically black college, a college that produces leaders for the black community as well as the world — helping liberate us as we in turn liberate our community and the rest of the world.

I'm just glad I went to a HBCU. I think it's one of the best decisions I made in my life. I'm looking forward to doing what Robert Smith did. Even if it's not a $40 million gesture, I'm looking to help others like me in my community. Since I was young up 'till now, it's all I received: help, encouragement, and inspiration from those around me. I am really a firsthand testament to just how great a person can be if the village really nurtures the children within it.

You spoke a bit about what should be expected from people who have the wealth and the resources to give back. Have you seen some of the proposals to relieve student debt from presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren?

I think her and Bernie Sanders are really putting out some groundbreaking proposals that no one in their party or the opposing party is. I also like Elizabeth Warren's college proposal because she doesn't forget about HBCUs. I think a lot of the time in society [and in] mainstream politics, historically black colleges and universities are forgotten. And she has a plan not only to cancel student loans but to also give money to private HBCUs, so she would basically help them keep their numbers up as well as make college more affordable for these young black students who don't have the resources. So she's not only addressing inequality and the racial wealth gap, but also college affordability. Those are the type of proposals that I think really push America towards a more equitable future.