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A Call to Philanthropic Funders to Support Historically Black Colleges and Universities

The first Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in America, Cheney University of Pennsylvania, was founded in 1837 — 28 years before Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas, on the day that what would eventually be recognized as Juneteenth.

Today, over 100 HBCUs dot the American landscape from the northeast to as far west as San Antonio, Texas — including one in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Although they make up a small percentage of the nation’s nearly 6,000 colleges and universities, their impact has helped shape our country.

According to the U.S. National Science Foundation, 8.5% of Black undergraduates attend HBCUs, yet 18% of the Black STEM bachelor’s degrees are awarded from these institutions. Of the top eight colleges and universities that graduate Black undergrads who go on to earn doctorates, seven are HBCUs. Indeed, one-third of all Black students who have earned doctorates graduated with bachelor’s degrees from HBCUs.

Despite this success, enrollment and funding for these institutions have fluctuated over the decades, but, as noted in a 2015 Gallup-Purdue poll, Black graduates of HBCUs felt more supported during their enrollment than their Black peers who graduated from primarily white institutions. In addition, Black HBCU graduates “were more likely than Black graduates of other institutions to be thriving — strong, consistent, and progressing — in a number of areas in their lives, particularly in their financial and purpose well-being.”

Book bans, attacks on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs, and the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down race-conscious admissions policies have been at the heart of attempts to erase the history and lived experiences of Black Americans and other communities of color. At the same time, and likely not coincidentally, HBCUs have seen an increase in applications and enrollment. In 2022, Common Black College Application submissions were four times higher than in 2016.

The Biden Administration, after years of underfunding from the federal government, committed over $16 billion to support HBCUs. However, there remains a significant gap in financial support and stability for HBCUs, especially when it comes to endowments. According to UNCF’s 2022 report, the median endowment for all HBCUs is $13.7 million compared to $36.7 million for non-HBCUs. The nation’s largest endowment belongs to Harvard University at nearly $50 billion. That’s 3,650 times more than the HBCU median.

No one source can help close the gap between HBCUs and non-HBCUs, but the philanthropic sector — especially funders who say they are committed to equity — must support the institutions, their faculty, and, of course, their students.

According to a 2023 report by the Association of Black Foundation Executives (ABFE) and Candid, “large U.S. foundations steadily decreased their support of HBCUs between 2002 and 2019. They awarded $65 million to HBCUs in 2002; by 2019, giving decreased 30% to $45 million (not adjusting for inflation). Independent foundations accounted for 66% of grant dollars, while corporate and community foundations represented 21% and 12%, respectively. Among the 1,607 foundations that supported HBCUs, the median aggregate dollar amount awarded was $11,000. The median number of HBCUs supported was one.”

Meanwhile, the average Ivy League institution received 178 times more foundation funding than the average HBCU. In total, Ivy League schools received a combined $5.5 billion in philanthropic dollars compared to HBCUs’ $303 million.

As a sector, we must do more. A mix of support is needed across HBCUs—from Hopelab’s recently announced translational science fellowship for researchers at HBCUs focused on Black youth mental health to the Lilly Endowment Inc.’s gift to UNCF that will more than double the endowments of UNCF’s 37 HBCU members—and everything in between. The support also needs to be ongoing, not a one-time act.

“We keep trying to show or prove that we can do everything that [other universities] do with half of what [predominately white institutions] have,” a faculty member at an HBCU told us during our outreach for the fellowship. “That’s not gonna work. It’s not sustainable.”

When asked what could be possible with increased and consistent funding, another faculty member said, “The first thing that’s off the top of my head is institutes … [Georgetown has] an institute that’s dedicated to juvenile justice. Why don’t we have that? … Because it’s our kids that are disproportionately housed in the justice system.”

Part of the philanthropic sector’s commitment to equity must include tackling the impact of generations of systemic inequality and underfunding. We must remain steadfast when institutional and political forces try to scare us into backing away, not just during moments of heightened awareness around racial justice, as we saw during the summer of 2020. In fact, our commitment must increase during these times, and we are most certainly in these times today.

The philanthropic sector’s financial support of HBCUs is an investment that will impact generations of students and our nation. According to UNCF, “HBCUs annually generate $14.8 billion in national economic impact, as well as 134,090 jobs for their local and regional economies altogether.”

As the authors of the ABFE and Candid report note, “By committing to funding HBCUs, developing long-lasting relationships with them, and increasing HBCU capacity, foundations will strengthen HBCUs to continue — and build upon — the remarkable impact they have had on Black communities and the nation.”


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