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If Robert F. Smith wanted to pay local college debt, what numbers are we talking?

UPDATED: Mon., May 20, 2019

During his commencement address, billionaire Robert F. Smith surprised the Morehouse College graduating class with an enormous gift: Smith announced he would be footing the bill for every graduating student’s loans. This ran Smith around $40 million.

“We’re going to put a little fuel in your bus,” Smith said in his address. “Now, I’ve got the alumni over there, and this is a challenge to you alumni. This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans. I know my class will make sure they pay this forward.”

Jim White, Gonzaga University Dean of Student Financial Services, said he thinks Smith’s donation will be life-changing.

“I think it will allow them to consider jobs in higher cost cities where they may have ruled them out,” White said. “… I think it will allow many of them to also follow their passion, because sometimes our passions aren’t really the highest paying jobs.”

White said he wished Gonzaga had a generous donor to step up for its students, and it would be nice to see more of this type of philanthropy. If a benevolent billionaire wanted to do the same at one of the local universities, how much would they have to pony up?

In the case of Gonzaga, the graduating class left with a diploma and a total of about $19.8 million in loans. Of its 1,323 students, about 60% borrowed money.

“We try to encourage students to borrow responsibly, to think about what their expenses will be, and carefully consider what they need to cover their expenses,” White said. “I think our students do a pretty good job of that.”

White added that Gonzaga has merit and need-based scholarships that can allow families to borrow less. He said students who take out loans to attend college are making a good investment in their future.

To pay off the debt at University of Idaho, the number comes closer to what Smith will shell out. With an average debt of $25,000 per student and a graduating class of 1,502, the total debt of the 2019 class is around $37.55 million. The percentage of students who graduated with debt was not available.

Eastern Washington University’s numbers are lower. With a graduating class of 2,922, the total of student loans is about $35.87 million. The average debt is $23,175, with just 53% of students graduating with debt.

At Whitworth University, total loan debt for a class of 628 students was $13 million. The percentage of students who graduated with debt was not available.

Washington State University didn’t have information for 2019 immediately available. In 2018, total loan debt was $42.93 million for a class of 2,789. In its case, 57% of the students graduated with loan debt.

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