Oprah Hits Back at Critics Who Say She Should Have Paid Off Students’ Debt

By Zachary Stieber

Oprah Winfrey hit back at critics who said she should have paid off the debt of the students who she addressed during a commencement speech at Colorado College.

The criticism arose from some social media users after investor Robert Smith revealed during his recent speech at Morehouse College that he would be paying off all the student loans the graduating class owed.

After speaking at Colorado College on May 19, Winfrey posted a picture of herself with a graduate on Instagram, writing, “I don’t know who this guy is but he sure is happy to graduate! I shook hands with all 571 members of @coloradocollege’s Class of 2019 and gave them a copy of The Path Made Clear.”

Some users said Winfrey should have followed Smith’s example and paid off the loans of all graduates. She “should have paid off their student debt” instead of giving them her book, one user said.

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Winfrey hit back at the critic, writing that she has “already paid $13 m[illion] in scholarships.”

She said that she’s helped over 400 men graduate from Morehouse so far.

Other Instagram users also defended Oprah.

“People, who are we to decide how to spend other peoples $$? Do the world a favor, make the money yourself and then YOU can decide how to gift it or not. This is just rude! For all of those how have $$ to give, thank you for your generosity! Manners, people!” wrote one.

“That person should be concerned with their own money, not @oprah and what she does with it,” added another.

“Oprah’s giving is legendary. What have you done except criticize?” added another.

Among her many donations, Oprah recently gave $500,000 to the West Side High School in Newark, New Jersey, after hearing about the school’s “Lights On” program, which gives students a place to chill on Friday nights until 11 p.m.

“The lesson is, every day there’s a story that you can do something about,” Oprah told CBS. “Today I actually did something.”

Principal Akbar Cook, who started the program, said that there have been no youth deaths in the area since it was launched. He said he plans to expand the program.

“I still need to do more just restorative things for the kids—yes, it’s recreational, but if I can give them some educational resources and show them some life skills so they can be more employable to employers, anything I can [do] to make them successful,” he said. “I know we all want to send our kids straight to college, but sometimes these kids can’t [go]. They need to go to the workforce to support their siblings, [or] their own children.”

L-R: Robert F. Smith, David Thomas, and actress Angela Bassett at Morehouse College in Atlanta on May 19, 2019. (Bo Emerson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Speaker Stuns Graduates, Says He Will Pay Off Student Debt

A billionaire technology investor stunned the entire graduating class at Morehouse College when he announced at their commencement Sunday that he would pay off their student loans—estimated at up to $40 million.

Robert Smith, this year’s commencement speaker, made the announcement while addressing nearly 400 graduating seniors of the all-male historically black college in Atlanta. Smith, who is black, is the founder and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, a private equity firm that invests in software, data, and technology-driven companies.

“On behalf of the eight generations of my family that have been in this country, we’re gonna put a little fuel in your bus,” the investor and philanthropist told graduates in his morning address. “This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”

The announcement immediately drew stunned looks from faculty and students alike. Then the graduates broke into the biggest cheers of the morning and stood up, applauding. Morehouse said it is the single largest gift to the college.

Though college officials could not provide an estimate of the exact amount owed by the current graduating class, students graduate with an average debt of $30,000 to $40,000, said Terrance L. Dixon, vice president of enrollment management.

Smith, who received an honorary doctorate from Morehouse during the ceremony, had already announced a $1.5 million gift to the school.

Smith said he expected the recipients to “pay it forward” and said he hoped that “every class has the same opportunity going forward.”

“Because we are enough to take care of our own community,” Smith said. “We are enough to ensure that we have all the opportunities of the American dream. And we will show it to each other through our actions and through our words and through our deeds.”

In the weeks before graduating from Morehouse on Sunday, 22-year-old finance major Aaron Mitchom drew up a spreadsheet to calculate how long it would take him to pay back his $200,000 in student loans—25 years at half his monthly salary, per his calculations.

In an instant, that number vanished. Mitchom, sitting in the crowd, wept.

“I can delete that spreadsheet,” he said in an interview after the commencement. “I don’t have to live off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I was shocked. My heart dropped. We all cried. In the moment it was like a burden had been taken off.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report