Graduating college students in Atlanta were left stunned when a billionaire technology investor told them he would wipe out their $40m (£31.4m) debts.
The students at Morehouse College, an all-male historically black institution, were already in a celebratory mood as they prepared to receive their degrees at the end-of-year ceremony, but were sent into sheer pandemonium when commencement speaker Robert F Smith made his surprise announcement.
The investor and philanthropist, who founded his own private equity firm, said: “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. This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”
His generous donation is the single largest gift ever received by the college, where students graduate with an average debt of between $30,000 (£23,563) and $40,000 (£31,417).
Mr Smith, who is also the chief executive of his Vista Equity Partners company, had already announced a $1.5m (£1.2m) gift to the school when he made his announcement, which came as he received an honorary doctorate.
He told the crowd that he expected the recipients to “pay it forward” and added that he hoped “every class has the same opportunity going forward”.
He said: “Because we are enough to take care of our own community, we are enough to ensure that we have all the opportunities of the American dream.
“And we will show it to each other through our actions and through our words and through our deeds.”
Morehouse College president David A Thomas said the gift would have a profound effect on the students’ futures, some of whom had anticipated taking decades to pay off their debt.
In the weeks before graduating, finance major Aaron Mitcham, 22, worked out that it would take him 25 years at half his monthly salary.
Speaking after the ceremony, he said: “I can delete that spreadsheet. I don’t have to live off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I was shocked. My heart dropped. We all cried.
“In the moment it was like a burden had been taken off.”