An influx of money paints an optimistic picture for historically Black colleges and universities

Like almost every other aspect of life, colleges and universities have seen tectonic shifts in the way they operate. HBCUs are no exception, but in 2020, these schools may have been buffered by a flood of support spurred by the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter movement.

MacKenzie Scott, former spouse of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, twice made record-breaking rounds of financial support for 23 HBCUs in 2020. Netflix cofounder Reed Hastings and his wife, Patty Quillin, gave $120 million to the United Negro College Fund, Morehouse College and Spelman College. Private equity investor Robert Smith, who is the richest Black person in America, pledged $100 million for a program that lets students in STEM programs pay back loans based on their ability. Billionaire and former presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg gave the same amount to four HBCU medical schools.

LeMoyne-Owen College in Tennessee received a $40 million gift, by far its largest, from the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis. And in February 2021, former UPS executive Calvin Tyler and his wife, Tina, gave $20 million to Tyler’s alma mater Morgan State University. It was the second-largest gift in the school’s history; the first being a $40 million donation from Scott.

The timing and magnitude of this philanthropy is directly related to a movement to address generational and educational gaps, as well as the increased impact of the pandemic on HBCU students. College enrollment nationwide dipped by about 4%, but that rate increased to 5.5% for HBCUs, with Black male students leaving school at greater rates than Black female students.

In the past couple decades, many colleges and universities have raised tuition to address rising costs. With so many students and families currently facing financial hardships, schools haven’t been able to go that route. Some are facing pressure to refund tuition; Hampton University reduced its tuition for 2020-21 by 15% to alleviate financial strain on students.

“In the best of times, many HBCUs survive on a thin budget,” Bethune-Cookman University President E. LaBrent Chrite told NBCBLK. “You add Covid-19 to the mix and it becomes quite a challenge.”

While the recent influx of philanthropy to HBCUs couldn’t come at a more critical time, some are cautioning blind acceptance of the money. “A million dollars still virtually buys the keys to a campus,” writes HBCU Digest’s Jarrett Carter, Sr., “but this also numbers the days of alumni groups and chapters, athletic booster clubs, and fraternities and sororities having the same kind of influence for gifts that are significant in impact, but hundreds of thousands less in unrestricted financial support.”

Indeed, during economic downturns like the Great Recession of 2008 or the record unemployment during the pandemic, colleges and universities see reduced support from alumni. Generational wealth gaps almost certainly fuel this disparity, which feeds into a cycle that is hard for HBCUs to break out of: Alumni giving to universities is one important way to keep costs for students down.

According to HBCU Money: “HBCU alumni must at least be willing to have the conversation about where our institutions money is coming from and more importantly how can we can ensure non-HBCU donors do not garner influence that moves us off our purpose to serve African-American social, economic, and political interest and empowerment.”