The two young men started at the same college, on the same day, and financed their education the same way: by going deep into debt.

Today, Elie Kirkland is so financially secure that, at age 24, he’s thinking of buying a home. Richard Williams, also 24, is in such a hole that he deferred his dreams of becoming a doctor.

Their stories reflect a remarkable sequence of events at Morehouse College, a historically black men’s school in Atlanta. The Morehouse Class of 2019 hit the American college equivalent of the lottery: Billionaire Robert F. Smith surprised its members at graduation with an extraordinary pledge to pay off their student debt.

It was only a quirk of bureaucracy that kept Kirkland in the money. He was supposed to graduate, like Williams, in 2018. But because of financial aid complications, Kirkland delayed graduation by a year and landed in the class that received Smith’s gift.

“If I want to buy a house, I can buy a house. If I want to take out a loan to start a business, I can do that,” said Kirkland, who had been more than $30,000 in debt. “It’s a huge burden that I just don’t have to worry about.”

The gift was a reminder of both the country’s vast wealth gap as well as the magnitude of the student-debt crisis. It cost Smith less than 1% of his net worth, which is estimated to be about $6 billion. And it was a drop in the bucket of U.S. student loan debt, which stood at nearly $1.7 trillion in March, according to the Federal Reserve. Smith declined to be interviewed for this story.

For recipients, it could be quite literally life changing. A Morehouse student usually graduates with between $35,000 and $40,000 in student loan debt, according to the school. Upon graduating, Black Americans owe $7,400 more on average than their white peers, according to a 2016 study by the Brookings Institution.

Smith’s donation was worth $34 million to roughly 400 students and their parents. The surprise gift created the perfect conditions for an economic experiment about the long-term effects of starting off life with a pile of student debt. In fact, Morehouse plans to study its impact.

But just a year later, the effects are becoming evident.

After graduating in 2018 with a degree in biology and public health, Williams moved back to his hometown of San Diego and started working at a hospital pathology laboratory. It wasn’t his first choice.

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