Robert F. Smith, the multibillionaire who told 400 students of the graduating class at Morehouse College in Georgia he'd pay their entire student loan debt, is the richest African-American in the United States. His reputation for philanthropy is legendary.

Smith, 56, told the graduates on Sunday he will establish a grant to pay-off their student loans amounting to $40 million. His announcement was greeted with delighted shock, shouts and tears of joy. He previously pledged a $1.5 million gift to Morehouse, an all-male, historically black college located in Atlanta.

"My family is going to create a grant to eliminate your student loans," Smith told the graduating class. "You great Morehouse men are bound only by the limits of your own conviction and creativity."

“This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans. I know my class will make sure they pay this forward ... and let's make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward because we are enough to take care of our own community."

One of the stunned but grateful students was Kamal Medlock who said that when smith said those words “all my classmates' mouths dropped open. We were speechless. We were shocked,” according to NPR.

The student loan burden for graduating seniors has been continuously on the rise. The average debt at graduation now stands at more than $30,000 or triple what it was in the early 1990s.

Forbes said Smith, a graduate of Cornell University who founded private equity and venture capital firm Vista Equity Partners in 2000, became America's richest African-American in 2018. He displaced the former richest African-American, celebrity Oprah Winfrey, who is also renowned for her lavish generosity.

Vista Equity focuses exclusively on the enterprise software, data and technology sectors. It's the fourth largest enterprise software company in the world after Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP. In 2017, Vista Equity Partners was estimated to have $30 billion under management.

Among Vista's portfolio companies are Finastra, TIBCO, , Vertafore, Solera, Infloblox, Mediaocean Ping Identity, Lithium, Cvent and Datto.

Smith is a former chemical engineer and investment banker. He was ranked by Forbes as the 163rd richest person in America in 2018, and No. 480 on Forbes 2018 list of the world's billionaires.

In 2017, Smith was named by Forbes as one of the 100 greatest living business minds.

Also in 2017, Smith was named one of the "Philanthropy 50" by the magazine, Chronicle of Philanthropy. In May of this year, The Giving Pledge announced Smith had joined its ranks as the only African-American philanthropist.

The Giving Pledge is a campaign that encourages wealthy people to contribute a majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes. As of May 2019, the pledge had 191 signatories (individuals or couples) from 22 countries.

Robert Smith at Morehouse Robert Smith at Morehouse Photo: Morehouse College

In 2018, Smith was the largest individual donor at the City of Hope Gala. The City of Hope is a private, not-for-profit clinical research center, hospital and graduate medical school located in California. Smith’s donation earmarked funds towards prostate cancer treatment for black men and for breast cancer research for black women.

Smith also donated $2.5 million to the Prostate Cancer Foundation to advance prostate cancer research among African-American men.