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To the Class of 2019 at Morehouse College: Here's Why You Should Consider Declining Billionaire


In case you’ve been living under a rock, let me give you an update on the cost of college: it’s a lot. (and is outpacing wage growth too). As that cost has increased over the years, so too has the amount of loans needed to pay for it. From my personal experience working as a campus minister at an expensive private institution I can tell you that students are scared and unprepared to deal with this cost. Anyone in this situation would be tempted to jump at a quick fix. But is that the best choice?

Two weeks ago at the graduation ceremony for Morehouse College the wealthiest African American in the world, billionaire Robert Smith, committed to paying off the student loans of the entire graduating class. All 396 students. It was an incredible act of generosity. Articles I’ve read quote some Morehouse students as reporting to have over $200k in student loans. In all, Mr. Smith’s gift is estimated to run in the tens of millions of dollars. An unbelievable and unprecedented act of kindness. It could only have been conceived by an extraordinary man. His life story alone is as newsworthy as this recent act. Take moment and look him up. You'll be inspired.

But here’s why I think you should consider politely declining the offer.

When I crossed the stage at my own graduation from Pepperdine University I received a diploma, a hand shake from President Benton, and my bill: $85k in student loans. To be fair to Pepperdine, most of my loans were taken out at other universities (I went to four different colleges in four different states in four years. It was the scenic route, I guess.) They hit my wife and I six months after graduation just as promised by all the loan officers in those financial aid presentations at universities. You know the ones, right? Where your eyes glaze over and you tune out while they say really important things that won’t affect you for years from now and all you can think about is hoping to sit next to a cute girl in your Intro to Sociology class? But alas, it’s true. The debt comes due.

It was one of the biggest obstacles we faced in our new marriage. We had a choice to make: minimum payments for the rest of eternity or get focused and intense. We chose the latter. For the next two and a half years, Cecily and I worked multiple jobs, putting in 60+ hours a week, hustling on the side with coaching CrossFit, working with a nonprofit, teaching yoga, babysitting, and finding work trades. Cecily was lucky enough to land a part-time job which provided us with free housing at Pepperdine for a couple years before my job began doing the same. It was a grind. Our combined income was moderate, around $60k per year. Over fifty percent of that went directly to student loans. Our date nights were spent exploring in nature (free), eating dinner at home prior to going out to restaurants with friends so we could share an appetizer (cheap), and choosing water over cocktails (healthy and free!). From the beginning, it seemed like an insurmountable task. We wrestled with it, disagreed over what was a necessity versus a luxury in our lives, and said "no" to many important things. For a time we skipped flying home to visit family for holidays. This commitment to aggressively repaying our student loans was the biggest challenge we had ever faced. And that’s what made it great.

History has long lauded the benefits of embracing a challenge. The image of the phoenix rising up from the ashes, stories of heroes battling dragons guarding dark caves full of treasure, and even the imagery portrayed by the crucifixion of Christ all convey that struggle and sacrifice are not only critical to success, but are also integral to meaning. The history of Christianity tells the tale of numerous followers who take on a practice of discipline and often renunciation such as fasting and celibacy in order to be developed spiritually. Following Augustine's conversion in A.D. 386, he took a vow of chastity and introduced a rule for a monastic community around 397. Benedict of Nursia crafted the Rule of Saint Benedict in 517, calling for a balance between prayer and manual labor. Science supports this as well. Torn muscles grow back stronger. Exposure to bacteria is critical to developing a healthy immune system. In psychology, research has shown that adding desirable difficulties to the learning process (i.e. making fonts on a powerpoint more difficult to read) can enhance learning.

Being fully human is not removing all obstacles; it’s building resilience to face whatever may come.

The class of 2019 at Morehouse College just won the lottery. I grew up in government subsidized housing in rural Indiana and winning the lottery was the hope of many in my community and own family. Unfortunately, the stats on winning the lottery aren’t positive. Google them after reading this cautionary tale:

Jack Whittaker won $314 million dollars back in 2002 with a Powerball ticket, the largest individual winnings in history up to that date. Not long after, he was robbed. A year later, his granddaughter's boyfriend was found dead in his home. Three months after, his granddaughter was dead. Five years later his daughter was found dead. Not long after, his house burned to the ground. He later told TIME magazine “I wish that we had torn the ticket up.”

There are obvious differences between Jack Whittaker's tale of winning hundreds of millions of dollars and the class of 2019 at Morehouse College, but the principle still stands: hitting the jackpot does not mean an easy life.

Back to my marriage. The discipline and teamwork forged by battling our student loan debt has been critical to the bond created between my wife and me. I wouldn’t trade this for any amount of money in the world. But as a graduating senior, I didn’t know this. I would have graciously jumped at Mr. Smith’s incredible offer.

Ten years later and (hopefully) ten years wiser, I would say “Thank you, but it’s important to my future that I fight this fight.”


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