Howard University. Derek E. Morton, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Seventeen months have passed since the murder of George Floyd moved millions of protesters into the streets to demand action, renewing the nation’s focus on race, equity and systemic oppression. In this time, we have witnessed an unprecedented volume of commitments related to diversity, equity, inclusion and justice from organizations spanning nearly every sector imaginable. In philanthropy, many foundations shifted their grantmaking strategies to center equity, while others launched new initiatives to change the paradigm of power within communities of color or other historically under-resourced groups.

This is progress. Plain and simple.

However, the fact remains that the terrain left to climb on this equity journey is steep. The data shows racial disparities are only worsening. For example, the average wealth of Black families is $142,500, which pales compared to white families, whose average wealth sits at $983,400. Worse, we know that the pandemic is only deepening racial disparities beyond wealth and income in areas including health, early childhood development, food insecurity, housing, education and more.

Much is at stake in these changing times. And as the nation still holds its gaze upon issues of racial equity, those of us within the funding space must answer critical questions that will define our work. Among them, how can life outcomes be improved so that a generation from now, people of color are not limited by the systemic barriers driving today’s disparities? Or, more bluntly put: How are we ensuring that 20 years from now, we are not right back in this same position because these disparities grew at a rate faster than our grantmaking strategies could address?

I would not tell any funder there is only one approach to bringing about racial equity—it will take the dedicated and nimble efforts of many working in several areas, often with different yet effective strategies. However, if a funder seeks to walk the equity talk, a clear argument can be made for more concentrated funding of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

There are 107 public and private HBCUs that serve the Black community. Since 1837, HBCUs had consistently educated and readied Black Americans for greater opportunity, including during shameful periods of our nation’s history when often no, or few, other institutions were willing to do the same. In fact, before the desegregation of higher education in the 1950s and 1960s, almost all Black college students enrolled at HBCUs.

The higher ed landscape has broadened in its inclusiveness substantially since then, but the jaw-dropping outcomes from HBCUs have not waned at all. Today, HBCUs have produced 80% of all Black judges, 50% of all Black lawyers, half of all Black doctors, 40% of all Black engineers, 40% of all Black members of Congress, a quarter of all Black STEM graduates, and 13% of all Black CEOs in America. These results came despite HBCUs comprising only 3% of bachelor’s-granting colleges in the country.

HBCUs are not only perfectly poised to serve a more significant number of Black “traditional college students” (commonly thought of as 18- to 22-year-olds), but HBCUs can help a growing subset of learners with much to gain: Black adult students. There are currently 12.7 million Black adults without an education beyond high school. HBCUs’ years of credibility, esteem in the Black community, and ability to address the adult learner challenge make them essential vessels for increasing opportunity and equity among millions of people.

Adults without an associate or bachelor’s degree or other credentials are far less likely to achieve the same life outcomes as adults with educational attainment beyond high school. It is even more apparent for adults from marginalized communities. But many barriers face adults wanting to attain a credential or degree, and they require different support services and approaches as a result.

Lumina Foundation recently announced its HBCU Adult Learner Initiative, with an initial focus in North Carolina, working with five of the state’s HBCUs. The work seeks to remove educational attainment barriers for Black adults in several ways, which include: developing more adult-centered student services for academic support, personal growth, and life and career planning; enhancing faculty’s knowledge and skills for teaching adult learners; improving the transfer credit process for military students and adults relocating from community colleges; revising credit for prior learning policies so that students can fulfill program requirements and graduate faster; and establishing clearer degree pathways.

But the work in North Carolina represents a small fraction of funding support necessary for HBCUs to thrive. The philanthropic community will need to offset the dramatic decreases in state and federal funding that HBCUs have experienced over time. Federal support for HBCUs fell dramatically between 2003 and 2015, dropping 42% during that span. In addition, in 2011, a change in federal policy limited the ability of parents to acquire federal loans for students. It was an effort meant to address the growing student debt issue, but there are always unintended consequences. In an era when some of the most recognizable names in higher education can raise the overall cost of attendance seemingly with no limit, HBCUs faced a different reality: plummeting enrollment. As noted in the Hechinger Report, “HBCUs’ ability to raise tuition and fees—without either violating their core mission or suppressing the number of students who will even apply—is limited.”

The last two years have seen federal funding policies for HBCUs swing back in a favorable direction, most notably by restoring annual funding and discharging over $1.6 billion in debt accrued through the HBCU Capital Financing Program. But these are measures only making up for a portion of systemic mistakes from the past rather than positioning HBCUs for the future. In the design of Lumina’s HBCU Adult Learner Initiative, we collaborated with an array of HBCU presidents, scholars and leaders to understand the most pressing barriers facing their institutions. The most consistent answer: An increase in funding support is necessary and the No. 1 priority.

Philanthropy has a role to play at this moment in time. For the nation. For Black communities. This much we know. Also, while we redefine our part, we must not overlook some of the most proven, but often under-supported, educational institutions in our country, as they can be a ladder for so many more than they are able to support right now. So as we continue to seek answers within our grantmaking strategies, look toward an obvious one.

Support students of color and the remarkable opportunities that await them. Support the unwavering institutions that make it so. Support our HBCUs.

Jasmine Haywood, Ph.D., is a strategy director at Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all.

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