“I had aspirations to go to medical school, but everything is so expensive,” he said.

Simply applying to medical school — taking the Medical College Admission Test ($320), application fees and trips to interview at schools — can cost thousands of dollars. Tuition to a four-year program ranges from about $35,000 a year for in-state students at public universities to north of $60,000 a year at private schools or for out-of-state students.

Instead, Williams enrolled in a public-health master’s program at nearby National University, where it will cost him around $30,000, total, for the degree. He started making the $500-a-month payments toward his undergraduate loans. The pandemic has put payments on hold, for now, but “it’s going to stack up,” he said. Williams took out more loans to pay for his master’s, and he hasn’t started paying those off. He says he’s overwhelmed.

“I owe a lot of money,” Williams said. “It’s been a challenge.”

For Kirkland, the lack of debt has meant he doesn’t have to face some of the same obstacles as his parents. He and his four siblings grew up in East Lansing, Michigan. His parents always stressed the importance of financial health because they struggled with their own credit card and student-loan debt, and they had low credit scores. “They were handicapped,” he said.

In fact, his dad had only just paid off his own student loans when he took on more to pay for Morehouse. (Smith’s gift also covered loans taken out by parents.) They tried to warn Kirkland away from overusing credit cards. He didn’t heed their advice.

“I made dumb mistakes,” Kirkland said. “Like most college students do, you know, they think that credit cards are free money. So money that I would have used to pay off student loans, I used to pay off credit cards.”

Now debt free, he stayed in Atlanta, where he lives with his girlfriend. His credit score is high enough that it puts other types of big decisions within reach, such as swapping his rent payment for a similar mortgage payment on a house. He’s been working as a vocal coach and hopes to start his own business.

The students of the Morehouse Class of 2019 now have more economic freedom to take those kinds of risks, such as starting a business, which can create wealth, said Henry McKoy, director of entrepreneurship at North Carolina Central University’s business school.

McKoy said the effects of being debt free could have a larger economic impact too, and be one small step in closing the racial wealth gap. Though they make up about 13.4% of the population, Black Americans hold less than 5% of the country’s wealth, according to June estimates from the Federal Reverse.