The Color of Alumni Money Is Changing: Behind a Campus Scholarship Gift

The enrollment of students of color in higher ed institutions has not risen nearly as much as many would like in the past few decades, but the increases have still been significant. Around 20 percent of African-Americans between 18 and 24 were enrolled in post-secondary institutions in 1980. By 2012, that figure had rised to 36 percent. The increases in Asian and Latino enrollment have been even bigger

One result of this shift is that the demographics of alumni have been changing—along with that of alumni donors. And when some of those donors give back, they have an eye out for the kind of students they once were. 

A case in point: University of Chicago recently received a $7 million gift from alumnus Frank Baker and his wife Laura Day, to endow undergraduate scholarships and internships for lower-income students. Each year, seven students will be selected to receive Frank Baker and Laura Day New Leader Odyssey Scholarships and New Leader Odyssey Internships, as well as an annual stipend for summer research, travel, or internships.

Baker graduated with a degree from UChicago in 1994 and later received his MBA from Harvard Business School. He started his career in M&A at Goldman Sachs and is a cofounder and managing partner of New York-based private equity firm Siris Capital Group. His nonprofit involvements include serving as a board member of Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO), a free eight-year academic program that helps low-income public high school students graduate and get through college.

Baker's work with SEO brings us to a personal part of this story, the kind of tale that often animates philanthropic giving. Long before he was an SEO board member, Baker was a student with SEO and graduated from the program in 1992. Yep, Baker was once exactly the kind of promising student that he and his wife are now aiming to support with their big gift to UChicago. As Baker puts it, "My parents always emphasized the importance of giving back to our community. As a student at the College, I set a goal for myself to help students like me, students of color, to have the transformational experience of a UChicago education... Laura and I hope that through our gift we can inspire minority students to be leaders in their chosen fields."

Of course, discussions of diversity are taking place in almost every sector in America these days, from the creative world of Broadway and Hollywood, to tech and even finance. Many important conversations have been happening on college campuses, too.

Baker is African-American, and in recent months I've profiled several funders with this particular background who've used their wealth to try to help others along the way. NBA superstar Lebron James initiated a scholarship effort in his hometown last year for low-income youth. Private equity billionaire Robert Smith also recently gave $50 million to Cornell towards scholarships for minorities and women in STEM. Smith's gift might be the largest ever by a black American to an institution of higher learning. It stands to reason that as doors continue to open, these kinds of gifts will keep coming.

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In recognition of the gift, UChicago's newest dining commons will be named the Frank and Laura Baker Dining Commons. Baker and Laura, an interior designer, live in New York City with their children. The couple don't yet appear to have a charitable vehicle, but should be watched for more giving in this space in the coming years.