A recent New York Times article highlighted the “overdue” moment Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are having, from hiring news about high-profile faculty to stellar philanthropic support. HBCUs’ athletic programs are also landing top recruits, like at Bethune-Cookman University, which recently announced that Reggie Theus, the former Chicago Bulls guard, will become its new athletic director.
Corporations and big-name donors alike have sent millions of dollars to HBCUs in the past year. After the racial justice reckoning following George Floyd’s death, companies like Google and TikTok sent funds to HBCUs across the country, seeking to boost areas like research, development and academic enrichment.
HBCUs like Howard University, a prestigious college in Washington, D.C., earned positive mentions when high-profile African American thought leaders announced they would join the faculty. Nikole Hannah-Jones, a journalist noted for her coverage of racial injustice in America, also won a 2020 Pulitzer Prize for her work on the 1619 Project. Jones announced she would join Howard University’s faculty after rejecting a belated offer of tenure from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates notably left his job at New York University, also joining his alma mater Howard’s faculty roster.
The History and Importance of HBCUs
Although this surge of donations and attention is helpful, many in the HBCU community feel this support is long overdue. “We’ve been here since 1865,” George T. French Jr., the president of Clark Atlanta University, reminds the public.
Since their founding, many HBCUs have encountered financial and academic difficulties. Fifteen HBCUs have closed since 1997. According to the American Council on Education, private historically Black colleges saw a 42% decline in federal funding between 2003 and 2015.
Over their lifetimes, HBCUs have become hubs of protest and political discourse, helping educate and inspire future Black leaders. They’ve graduated notable alumni, including Vice President Kamala Harris, former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, poet Langston Hughes and film director Spike Lee. Today, HBCUs account for 3% of all institutions of higher learning in America, enroll 16% of all African American students in higher education and graduate 30% of all African Americans earning bachelor’s degrees.
According to the United Negro College Fund, HBCUs are more important than ever. Their relatively lower tuition costs help narrow the racial wealth gap and can help address the nation’s unemployment crisis. HBCUs’ campus climate helps foster successful, prepared Black leaders, and helps meet the needs of many first-generation college students.
Robert F. Smith’s Support for HBCUs
Philanthropist Robert F. Smith has taken a special interest in funding, supporting and investing in HBCU communities. As Morehouse College’s 2019 commencement speaker, Smith famously pledged to pay back the student loans of the entire graduating class and their parents, estimated at around $40 million.
“On behalf of the eight generations of my family that have been in this country, we’re going to put a little fuel in your bus,” Smith said during his speech. Graduates labeled the announcement exciting, joyful and “unbelievable.” By eliminating the barriers of endless student debt for this class, Smith helped embolden a cohort of talented Black men to pursue impactful careers.
“There are few better financial investments than those in the future of young people,” Smith recently posted on Twitter. “Glad to see so many HBCUs deploying funds to serve their students and help liberate them from the burden of debt.”
Smith’s advocacy and philanthropic support for HBCUs did not end there, however. The Fund II Foundation, a charitable organization of which Smith is founding director and President, helped launch Student Freedom Initiative this fall at nine HBCUs. Fund II Foundation donated $50 million to Student Freedom Initiative last year, followed by a $50 million personal donation from Smith. The program offers qualifying juniors and seniors who are science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors a flexible, lower-risk alternative to high-interest private student loans, along with paid internships, career mentoring, tutoring and capacity-building support available for all students at participating schools.
Read more about Smith’s work to support HBCU students.