How funders, school leaders can step up to combat philanthropic disparities faced by HBCUs

 Changes are necessary on both sides of the table to address the chronic lack of funding faced by historically Black colleges and universities, some experts say in the wake of a report showing the vast funding disparity between Historically Black Colleges and Universities and their Ivy League counterparts.

While the largest challenge remains the redirecting of philanthropic funds to HBCUs, they say, HBCU leaders also need to be better about promoting their product through tools such as social media and podcasts – even if financial challenges make those tasks more difficult.

“HBCU’s are slow to change,” said Crystal deGregory, who researches HBCUs as an associate professor of history at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida. “A lot of storytelling that they’ve been doing, even to good effect, could be considered outmoded and definitely lagging when compared to the dynamism of historically white institutions.”

The University of the District of Columbia in Washington, D.C., is among the nation's historically Black colleges and universities. Such institutions face funding challenges, especially when compared to their Ivy League counterparts.

The recently released study, conducted by philanthropic research group Candid in partnership with ABFE, a nonprofit pushing for investment in Black communities, found funding to HBCUs from large U.S. foundations fell 30% between 2002 to 2019, with the average Ivy League institution receiving 178 times more foundation funding than the average HBCU.

Funding to HBCUs dropped from $65 million in 2002 to $45 million in 2019, the study found. From 2015 to 2019, the nation’s 99 HBCUs received $303 million – compared to a combined $5.5 billion given to the eight Ivy League schools in that same period.

Gap reflects longstanding disparity

Susan Taylor Batten, AFBE’s president and CEO, said while researchers weren’t surprised by the findings, they were alarmed at the enormity of the disparity.

“Philanthropy generally funds Black-led nonprofit organizations disproportionately less than other similarly situated organizations,” Batten said.

While funding to HBCUs rose substantially amid a national reckoning over racial inequity following the March 2020 murder of George Floyd, observers don’t expect such levels to be sustained. According to the researchers’ preliminary data, HCBU funding rocketed to $249 million – a 453% spike – in 2020, including a combined $550 million given to 22 HBCUs by philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.

“I think it will be short-lived,” said Robert Palmer, department chair and associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Howard University. “It’s about the moment.”

A graduation themed printed mural is seen on the Howard University campus, July 6, 2021, in Washington.

Lodriguez Murray, vice president of public policy and government affairs for UNCF, the nation’s largest private supporter of Black students, called the increase “a drop in the bucket. The need is still extremely severe.”

Succeeding despite the challenges

According to UNCF, HBCUs account for about 3% of all U.S. colleges and universities, accounting for 80% of Black judges, 50% of Black doctors and 50% of Black lawyers. Research shows Black HBCU graduates earn $900,000 more in their lifetimes than Black graduates from predominantly white institutions or Black workers without college degrees.

The authors said the study made clear the impact that foundation funding could have if redirected to HBCUs.

“HBCU’s have thus far been successful with limited resources, underscoring their value, power and potential,” they wrote in their executive summary.

In the meantime, chronic underfunding impacts everything from their infrastructure to financial aid availability, Palmer said.

“If you have a healthy endowment, you can give more scholarships to needy students who demonstrate academic promise,” he said. “You’re able to attract and retain the brightest students, as well as key faculty. Without those resources, it really puts HBCUs at a disadvantage.”

Attending a university has become more and more expensive, American students more than ever must turn to grants, scholarships, and other aid to help afford higher education. Many schools can offer students financial aid through their endowments -- invested assets, largely from donations, that are used to further the institution's educational mission -- but historically Black institutions face overwhelming disparities in funding.

Additionally, deGregory said, historically white institutions now strive to attract the kind of talent that was once welcome only at HBCUs.

“They’re going after every top student, athlete and researcher, including those who are Black, so it presents a very real challenge to the future of these institutions,” she said. “How do you compete?”

Social media can be part of the solution

Because most large funders and funding institutions tend to be white, deGregory said, “the people who occupy the seats at these tables of power have to themselves want to do a better job. There is only so much that Black institutions and other minority-serving institutions can do when funders are fine with the good-ol’-boy club of funding their alma maters.”

Some of the blame lies with HBCUs, the experts said, that have been lagged in adapting to technology to promote themselves, whether through social media or even simply a dynamic web presence.

Palmer said that while leaders such as Howard University’s Wayne Frederick, Morgan State University’s David Wilson and Spelman College president Helene Gayle have set good examples, HBCU’s “have to be more intentional about working more collectively as a group.”

“HBCU’s are known for doing more with less but they shouldn’t have to, given the impact they have on society,” he continued. “They’re producing doctors and lawyers and judges and teachers, and we should work to make sure they’re funded equally and that corporations are taking note.”

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