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New Philanthropy Trends May Be a Game-Changer for HBCUs

The last few months of deep social unrest have struck a chord with a much broader audience than just those that are directly affected by racism. Videos showing unimaginable police brutality have finally penetrated the collective conscience of our nation. For many black people, violence at the hands of the police is nothing new.  However, for many white Americans who may be directly witnessing the brutality for the first time, it is no longer an option to ignore the injustice. It is finally registering that our country has to make systemic changes. Corporations, foundations, and wealthy individual donors are starting to put real money towards solving these inequities. And one of the most fundamental ways to even the playing field is through education.  HBCUs, in particular, could benefit significantly from this new wave of philanthropy.

In fact, some HBCUs have recently been the beneficiaries of large donations that have set records.  In recent months, Michael Bloomberg’s foundation announced they would be donating $100 million to four HBCUs, intending to increase the number of black doctors.   Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and his wife pledged a total of $120 million to the United Negro College Fund and two of Atlanta’s historically Black colleges to “reverse generations of inequities.” The gesture so inspired the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis that they announced their own $40 million gift to LeMoyne-Owen College (the only HBCU located in Memphis) in early July.  And let’s not forget that three other historically Black Colleges and Universities announced Tuesday that they have each received the largest single donation in their schools’ history. Howard University, Xavier University of Louisiana, and Hampton University were all beneficiaries. Howard and Hampton Universities both announced that the donations came from MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Jeff Bezos. Corporations are also starting to put more funding towards supporting Black engineering schools to increase STEM field graduates. The three largest industry supporters are Lockheed Martin Corporation, The Boeing Company, and Northrop Grumman Corporation. 

Other corporate entities such as The Wells Fargo Foundation have partnered with the HBCU Coalition to sponsor initiatives such as the Our Money Matters project.  It was created to transform the financial mindset of a generation of students prepared to become high wage earners, economic and social entrepreneurs, investors, and philanthropists. The project will offer several educational tracks with opportunities for campus members and the broader community to pursue and earn valued certifications and college credit in several sectors, along with other unique options that will create a wealth-building culture at the participating institutions.

These sponsorship programs and large donations could not come at a more critical time as many HBCUs are struggling financially.  They have historically helped support many first-generation Americans as well as lower-income black students, offering them the only opportunity that they would have had to attend college. In addition to supporting lower-income students, HBCUs have been traditionally underfunded by endowments and government programs.  According to a study by Bloomberg, none of the ninety institutions of higher education in the U.S. with endowments of more than $1 billion is an HBCU.  Howard University in Washington, D.C., (which is the wealthiest HBCU) only ranks a hundred and sixtieth on the list, with an endowment of $578 million. That is just 2 percent of top-ranking Harvard University, further illustrating that the wealthiest schools continue to get the largest endowments.  As Marybeth Gasman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, states, “Wealth begets wealth.”  And while the current administration has shown wavering support for HBCUs, the Universities and Colleges are under increasing pressure to strengthen their asset bases.  It’s an uphill battle,” said John Brown, interim vice president for Morehouse’s office of institutional advancement. “But it’s not a challenge that Morehouse or the HBCUs with which I’m familiar are willing to concede.”

In summary, the momentum of larger donations is a promising trend, although the most well-known of the HBCUs receive the lion’s share.  Kayla Elliott, a senior policy analyst for higher education at the Education Trust, states that while she can understand the frustration, the most significant disparities within the HBCU sector pale compared to the disparities between HBCUs and predominantly white institutions.  So, while the recent large endowments have been encouraging, there is still a long way to go to achieve parody.  As Brian Bridges, UNCF’s vice president of research and member engagement, tells EducationDive, “We hope this is a pattern that is not simply a moment. We hope that this is a movement that directs more investment toward HBCUs in the long-term.” 

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