Robert F. Smith on Philanthropic Donations to HBCUs

University Building

Amidst the COVID-19 health crisis, colleges and universities across the country have been under financial pressure due to increased expenses and lower student enrollment. Financing a college education is challenging — particularly for students of color. However, philanthropists have seen how the crisis has disproportionately affected historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and have chosen to make an impact. 

Mackenzie Scott, an author and philanthropist, donated $40 million to Morgan State University — the largest single donation in the school’s history. David Wilson, Morgan State’s President, said the new gift will support the school’s research goals and enable more students to earn degrees. 

Scott’s donation to Morgan State was among the more than $4 billion in donations she contributed to 384 organizations and schools that work towards racial and gender equality. 

“This pandemic has been a wrecking ball in the lives of Americans already struggling,” Scott said. “Economic losses and health outcomes alike have been worse for women, for people of color and for people living in poverty. Meanwhile, it has substantially increased the wealth of billionaires.”

Morgan State and other HBCUs have long been overlooked by large donors whose financial gifts often are earmarked for scholarships and other tuition assistance programs. Because many HBCU students lack the resources to pay for college without tackling massive amounts of debt, a lack of scholarships and tuition help can create roadblocks to college attendance, or the resulting tuition loans can create lifelong debt for graduates. To address this gap, Robert F. Smith created the Student Freedom Initiative (SFI) — to increase investments in higher education that students of color desperately need. Smith believes that by increasing student financing options, “we can increase resources and finally broaden the talent pipeline to create a more diverse and thriving economy.”

SFI seeks to continue the work Smith has started to support HBCUs. In May 2019, Smith pledged to pay off the entire student loan debt of Morehouse College’s graduating class. In September 2019, Smith expanded the gift to include any outstanding educational loans owed by the graduates’ parents. The $34 million gift was inspired by his mother and father who supported higher education for Black students throughout his childhood. 

“I saw my parents exhibit a form of philanthropy every day,” Smith said. “My mother wrote a check every month for $25 to the United Negro College Fund for over 50 years.” 
To learn more about how the Student Freedom Initiative supports HBCUs, and their initial group of participating schools, visit its website.