“This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”
–Robert F. Smith, CEO of Vista Equity Partners, informing the Morehouse College Class of 2019 that he will be eliminating their student loan debt.
It’s been quite some time since I graduated from Morehouse College (Class of 20👀). Still, every spring, I make it a point to view the college’s social media channels so that I can celebrate the next crop of students transitioning into Morehouse Men. Shamefully, I can’t recall the name of my graduation speaker or what the message entailed, but I’ll always remember the message bestowed on the Class of 2019 by their commencement speaker.
Last month, myself and many others were shocked to hear businessman, investor, and philanthropist Robert F. Smith inform a group of 396 graduating seniors that he will be eliminating their student loan debt, allowing them to reimagine their life post graduation knowing that they will not be saddled with the mountain of student loan debt that typically follows new graduates. In doing so, he has positioned them to accumulate a certain level of financial independence more readily than any class before them. Ideally, this act of kindness will provide these graduates with more flexibility when choosing career options and the peace of mind of not having to stress over unpredictable student loan payments. More poignantly, he has single-handedly, in a powerful and immediate motion, redirected future funds that would have otherwise gone toward debt into savings opportunities that may accelerate their pathway to homeownership – a cornerstone of long-term wealth accumulation.
This man’s act sparked celebration, praise, and even jealousy on social media, and it elevated a debate on the severe costs of higher education; these costs make college unattainable for many individuals without the burden of exorbitant (and often lifelong) debt. Large student loan payments are a significant hurdle in generating wealth, and student debt is particularly prohibitive to saving for a down payment on a home. When thinking about essential professionals like educators, specifically those working in high-cost regions like the San Francisco Bay Area, the challenge of student debt hits even harder. Far too many educators in the Bay Area are forced to choose between leaving the region in order to access affordable living options or to remain in the region and accept the fact they may never be able to achieve homeownership.
In my position on the Landed team, I frequently have introductory conversations with educators across the Bay Area who are enthusiastic about taking the necessary steps toward homeownership and are eager to learn how Landed could help them achieve this goal. While we have certainly experienced some success in achieving this effort, we recognize there is a lot more work to be done in helping educators get into their own homes.
Robert F. Smith’s generosity has encouraged me to develop a new perspective on the work we are doing at Landed, notably our current Down Payment Giveaway. In 2018, Landed, the College Football Foundation, and the Bay Area Host Committee partnered together to raise awareness on the housing challenges faced by educators in the Bay Area, and we offered direct financial support to help address these challenges in the form of a $25,000 down payment grant. These funds do not need to be paid back to any entity upon acceptance. In our initial giveaway round, three educators in the Bay Area received grants, and we are proud to share that all three winners are now living in their new homes; this experience has been both inspiring and frustrating.
It is inspiring in the sense that none of the individuals who received the down payment funds were actively looking for a home, and that upon receiving the giveaway funds, they were able to become active participants in the housing market. In contrast, it is also frustrating for us, due to the fact that these giveaway funds are limited – many deserving educators, who aspire to own homes and reside in the communities they serve, may never be able to do so. We are doing everything we can to change that.
Just like a billionaire’s selfless philanthropy toward a graduating class of unsuspecting college seniors will not solve the college affordability crisis, we recognize that Landed’s down payment program and grant giveaway are neither the only, nor the optimal, solutions for solving the U.S. housing affordability crisis for educators. Our hope is instead that the down payment giveaway will highlight and amplify the urgency around developing innovative solutions to ensure our educators are financially secure – and encourage public and private entities to form meaningful partnerships in pursuit of this mission.
Robert F. Smith is an alumnus of two Denver Public Schools we serve: East High School and Carson Elementary School. Smith is a fourth generation Coloradoan, and both of his parents were school teachers.
Interested Bay Area public school employees can find out more and check their eligibility for our 2019 giveaway by visiting the Down Payment Giveaway for Educators registration page. Public school teachers and staff are also invited to RSVP to our Summer Celebration at Levi's® Stadium.