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We shouldn't have to become a nation of Blanche Duboises.

Sorry, homes. I'm busy arranging my socks by color.

It's unlikely Morehouse College will be calling me when it seeks a compelling commencement speaker for 2020, but just in case President Thomas runs out of people and finally gets waaaay down on his Rolodex, I'm already trying to come up with a good excuse for turning him down.

“Arranging socks” is as far as I’ve gotten in the alphabet so far.

By a show of hands, how many of you think it's going to be difficult for Morehouse to get anyone to accept next year, considering the high bar set by 2019 commencement speaker Robert F. Smith?

Smith, the deep-pocketed CEO and chairman of Vista Equity Partners, began his commencement address by issuing the usual challenges one hears – make your degree mean more than wall decorations, “embrace the grind,” call your mother.

But then he stunned the 400 graduates and delighted much of the nation by announcing during his address that he was going to pay off the student loans of the entire graduating class.

Imagine - a billionaire using his riches to ease the burdens of others instead of enlisting a cadre of accountants to figure out how little in taxes he can pay: go figure.

Retiring that debt will affect more than just the direct recipients of his largess. One graduate said that without the nearly $60,000 he expected to have to repay, his father will be able to retire early. Others on various television interviews said they planned to use the money they’d have used to pay off their debt to contribute to Morehouse’s scholarship fund – meaning even more young men who might not have had an opportunity to attend college can now do so.

And who knows: perhaps some of Smith’s fellow billionaires will be inspired to do the same next year when they don the cap and gown and deliver their commencement addresses.

My first thought upon hearing of Mr. Smith’s good deed was "Where was Big Money Grip 40 years ago when my class graduated?" (That's rhetorical: dude was in high school.)

When I finished college in 1979 - I quit after my junior year to work as a copyboy at the Atlanta Constitution newspaper - I came out owing Morehouse around $600. The Institute for College Access and Success estimated that the average student borrower in the class of 2017 owed $28,650.

Thanks to an annual government grant, work study, busting suds at Stouffer's restaurant and lugging luggage at Paschal Brothers hotel, I was able to come out, relatively speaking, debt-free.

Scores of schoolmates, though, owed several thousand dollars when they accepted their sheepskin - and a couple didn't receive one precisely because of their outstanding debt.

They would certainly have benefited from the generosity of someone like Smith.

As wonderful as his gift was, though, it highlights a systemic problem in America: ambitious young people shouldn't have to - like Blanche DuBois - depend upon the kindness of strangers to avert leaving college with crippling debt.

The ones who leave with debt are the lucky ones, though, because at least they got into college.

Untold others will never know the thrill of trying to cram a semester’s worth of studying into a single weekend before finals because you were having so much fun all year, or the thrill of going “Boola boola” at the homecoming football game, or the thrill of walking across a stage to receive a diploma while teary-eyed family members look on with pride – because they’ll never get to attend college in the first place.

You know those people who recoil in horror at the thought of "free college for all"?

They are probably the same ones who'd begrudge poor kids the types of grants students such as I received in the 1970s.

It’s conceivable that even without college, I might've still ended up with an exciting, well-paying job that permitted me to travel the world, but odds are greater that I'd have ended up busting tables at the Cheesecake Factory, driving a cab for Dewey "Boss Hogg" Edens - Rockingham's 1970s precursor to Uber - or serving drinks on the veranda of some country club.

"Y'all want some mo' mint in this heah julep, suh?"

It's unlikely, though, without that $6,400 in grants - not annually, silly: over four years – that I'd have ever gotten into college and been able to earn enough to pay far more than that in taxes each year.

Remember that the kid who sacked your groceries at the Piggly Wiggly last week and asked “Paper or plastic?”

He could've been the same one to discover the cure for cancer, Parkinson's or AIDS had he been born to wealthier parents – or had he at least been born in a country that realizes that making college accessible is a good investment.




Meet Barry Saunders

For over 20 years, Barry was a columnist for The News & Observer in Raleigh, NC. He also wrote for other publications, such as the Atlanta Constitution and the Richmond County Daily Journal. Often described as powerfully honest and illustratively funny, Barry's writing is both loved and hated by readers- sometimes simultaneously.  


Want more? Get your own copy of one of Barry's published books featuring reader favorites (and not so favorites) from his years writing columns for The News & Observer. Titled "Do Unto Others...And then Run" and "...And The Horse You Rode In On Saunders!", they're full of guaranteed entertainment. 


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