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Billionaire Pledges to Pay Student Debt for 2019 Morehouse Graduates

FILE - Members of a graduating class take pictures at their graduation ceremony at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, May 19, 2013.

The nearly 400 graduating seniors of Morehouse College in the southern U.S. city of Atlanta received an unexpectedly generous graduation gift Sunday.

Billionaire technology investor and philanthropist Robert Smith told the graduates that he will pay off the student debt of the entire class.

Smith, this year's commencement speaker, is the founder and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, a private equity firm that invests in software, data and technology-driven companies.

"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 told the graduates of the all-male, historically black college. "This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.''

At first, students and faculty appeared stunned, but once the gravity of the news sunk in, graduates and faculty rose to their feet, cheering.

Smith had already announced a $1.5 million gift to the school before the ceremony. The pledge to eliminate student debt for the class of 2019 is estimated to cost about $40 million.

In return for the magnanimous gift, Smith said he expects the recipients to "pay it forward.''

"Many of my students are interested in going into teaching, for example, but leave with an amount of student debt that makes that untenable,'' Morehouse College President David Thomas said. "In some ways, it was a liberation gift for these young men that just opened up their choices.''

Morehouse later said it is the single largest gift to the school.