MacKenzie Scott and Robert F. Smith are Cutting the Strings on Higher Education Philanthropy

Empowering Students

A recent Forbes article described education philanthropy as coming with “more strings than Pinocchio.” Boosters often restrict their gifts to specific groups, funds, programs and buildings, reinforcing a more self-centered form of giving. But philanthropists like MacKenzie Scott and Robert F. Smith, the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, are turning the page on education giving. 

By late 2020, Scott had announced (by a Washington Post tally) a total of $6 billion in charitable gifts, including more than $800 million in donations to public and private schools, the majority of which are HBCUs. “We do our research and deeper diligence not only to identify organizations with high potential for impact, but also to pave the way for unsolicited and unexpected gifts given with full trust and no strings attached,” Scott noted in her statement. Moreover, Scott’s donation specifically went to less prestigious schools with smaller endowments, ensuring the money went where it’s needed most. 

In 2011, a Washington Post article detailed how strings-attached giving presented university leaders with tough choices. “I have known some gifts in which the university just could not agree to the terms,” E. Gordon Lee, then-president of Ohio State University, said. “If there are too many strings attached, you have done yourself a disservice.” With extensive conditions, building name requirements and logistical issues, strings-attached donations can often cause more headaches for administrators and less direct benefits to students.

Robert F. Smith’s Strings-Free Investments in Higher Education 

Similar to Scott, Smith’s philanthropy focuses on colleges that create social mobility and support typically overlooked students. In 2019, Smith notably pledged to pay off the entire student loan debt of the graduating class of Morehouse College, a leading historically Black men’s liberal arts college in Atlanta, Georgia. “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 in his commencement address. “This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”

Smith then went on to promise another $50 million to create Student Freedom Initiative, a  nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring freedom in professional and life choices for students attending Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs). The program, which should launch officially in the fall of 2021, will focus on students at select Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

According to HBCU Digest, these donations by Scott and Smith have led HBCUs to surpass $1 billion in total gift contracts in 2020. Given that HBCUs comprise 3% of U.S. colleges but 20% of Black graduates, these investments will have an outsized impact on empowering Black students to pursue top careers and build generational wealth that they historically lack. 

This trend of decentralized giving, which enables grantees to more flexibly to use donations with less strings attached, will be an important legacy for the next generation of higher education philanthropists. Scott, Smith and countless others are helping to lead the way towards a more inclusive future. 

Read more about the Student Freedom Initiative, Smith’s Morehouse student debt pledge and Scott’s strings-free donations.