(Reuters) - Billionaire investor Robert Smith surprised graduating students at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, by using his speech at Sunday's commencement ceremony to pledge to pay off the student loan debt of the entire class of 2019.
Video footage of Smith's remarks show mouths falling agape before students rise to their feet to cheer and applaud as the pledge is made.
"This is my class, 2019, and my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans," Smith said during his speech, pointing towards hundreds of students dressed in black robes and mortarboards. "I know my class will make sure they pay this forward," Smith added.
The black founder and chief executive of the private equity firm Vista Equity Partners has a net worth of about $4.4 billion, according to a 2018 estimate by Forbes magazine.
Morehouse is a historically black college, one of more than 100 schools founded to serve black students, mostly in the U.S. South, before the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed school segregation. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights hero, is among its notable alumni.
The weight of student loan debt has become a focus of many of the candidates seeking to be the Democratic Party's nominee in next year's U.S. presidential election. Some candidates have pledged to cancel large portions of the debt and make college more affordable.
(This story adds full reference to Morehouse.)
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Sandra Maler)