Robert Smith Did More Than Just Pay Off Some Student Loans

Graduates react after hearing billionaire technology investor and philanthropist Robert F. Smith say he will provide grants to wipe out the student debt of the entire 2019 graduating class at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Sunday, May 19, 2019.

Steve Schaefer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

In his commencement speech last month, Robert F. Smith, founder and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, made national headlines when he pledged to pay off the student loans of the entire graduating class at Morehouse College.

Students were understandably thrilled by that generous act, but Smith’s gift was more than just a financial one. He also provided some valuable guidance on the importance of college and career readiness and educational equity.

1. Technology is creating new “on-ramps” for today’s workforce. Smith rightly talked about a 21st century tech-based economy that graduates will encounter as they enter the workforce. His words ring true: “Technology is creating a whole new set of on-ramps to the 21st-century economy, and together we will help assure that African Americans will acquire the tech skills and be the beneficiaries in sectors that are being automated."In just under 30 years, technology has transformed nearly everything—from the way we get news, to the way we enjoy music and movies, to the way that we work.  Today, nine-in-ten adults get their news from online sources. Compare this to 1990, when most Americans didn’t yet use the Internet, smartphones didn’t exist and more than 50% of people read a physical newspaper.

2. Those “on-ramps” will only be available to those with the right skills and education. Today’s students can only become employees of the future if they’re able to handle what they’ll face in life and the workplace after they graduate. The number of science, technology, engineering, and math-related (STEM) jobs has grown significantly over the last decade and is actually projected to continue growing faster than all non-STEM jobs in the future. But businesses are concerned about the lack of both technical and essential skills in job applicants to meet those needs.Preparing students to fill these good jobs requires that schools, educators, parents, and state policymakers actively hold students to a high educational bar and provide the quality instruction, tools and support to reach it.

3. Every single kid—regardless of where they live—deserves the same shot at that success. Implementing high academic standards also requires schools and teachers to make sure they are serving every child well so that they can reach those goals. Smith highlighted how quality education impacted his success, but also showed him the need for equal access to opportunity. He repeated a principle shared by many education advocates, “Where you live shouldn’t determine whether or not you get educated. And where you go to school shouldn’t determine whether you get textbooks.”

Congratulations to the Morehouse College Class of 2019—and all graduates who are entering this next exciting phase of their lives. And most importantly, thank you to Mr. Smith, who so unselfishly demonstrates the value of mentorship and leadership for our nation’s future workforce.

I am the executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit organization that defends high standards, high-quality assessments and strong systems ...