Three Funders Historically Black Colleges Should Know

Giving to higher education hit an all-time high of nearly $34 billion in 2013, according to the Council for Aid to Education. Unfortunately, these new heights in higher education philanthropy have largely bypassed the nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

A recent New York Times report, “Hard Times at Howard,” placed the spotlight on the financial woes of HBCUs. Where they once had a monopoly, these schools are now competing for top Afircan-American students — and often losing — to top-tier research universities and other elite institutions. Shrinking enrollments, limited endowments, and even instances of financial mismanagement have strained the coffers of HBCUs. As the Times reported, not even the venerable Howard University has been spared from these challenges. 

Advocates of HBCUs caution that it is vital to consider not just the cost, but the value produced by these institutions. Although HBCUs enroll less than 5 percent of the nation’s college-going students, they produce 20 percent of the African-American college graduates. Howard, for example, has graduated more African-American Ph.D.s, lawyers, and architects than any other institution.

Foundations have a role to play in aiding HBCUs, but the relationships between many funders and these institutions have been a little less than harmonious at times. A policy brief by University of Pennsylvania Professor Marybeth Gasman stated that previous foundation grants to HBCUs were often accompanied by extensive controls and manipulation. A 2012 Ford Foundation-funded study found mutual distrust, with HBCU leaders viewing funders as lacking appreciation for the challenges they face, and many foundation leaders seeing HBCUs as wanting funds without accountability. Gasman’s policy brief urges foundations and HBCUs to collaborate more closely, focusing on projects aimed at HBCUs’ infrastructure rather than short-term programs.

Despite the sometimes rocky relationships that have existed between foundations and HBCUs, a number of funders have made these valuable institutions an important part of their higher education funding. These foundations include:

  • Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This funder operates an HBCU program for private, four-year institutions. Grants under this program assist HBCU presidents in implementing their strategic plans, provide additional resources and development for libraries, and assist faculty members in curriculum development. In addition, the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowships program strives to increase the number of faculty of color on college campuses.
  • Kresge Foundation. Kresge’s education programs focus on higher education access and success, especially for historically underrepresented groups, such as African-Americans. The Strengthening Institutions program aims to help colleges and universities that focus on low-income and underrepresented students, including HBCUs. Kresge grants in this program promote facilities management, technology-based innovations, curriculum development, and other needs. Past recipients of Kresge grants include Morehouse and Spellman colleges in Atlanta, the Southern Education Foundation and the United Negro College Fund.
  • Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Four-year colleges that focus on the liberal arts and the sciences have a special place in the heart of the Davis Foundations. The good news for HBCUs is that Davis sets aside a portion of its funding each year to help improve these institutions. Davis grants range in size from $25,000 to $250,000.