A Big New Pot of Grant Money for Colleges to Build African-American Careers

We've reported before about the financial struggles faced by many historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and the efforts by funders to help these institutions succeed. For decades, HBCUs have been an important part of the American higher education landscape and a key source of college access for African-American men and women, who for years were denied admission to most U.S. colleges and universities (and who remain underrepresented in many schools to this day).

But in an age when nearly all colleges emphasize their commitment to recruiting a diverse student body, just how relevant are a set of institutions built during the days of Jim Crow? 

Well, pretty relevant, in the view of a number of funders who've lately put their financial muscle behind efforts to lift HBCUs to a firmer financial footing and, more broadly, to strengthen institutions focused on African-American students. 

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The latest news on this front is that is the Lilly Endowment has pledged $50 million to the United Negro College Fund. The gift is the second largest in UNCF history and provides grants for up to 30 schools. It is designed to strengthen career pathways for students in HBCUs and other colleges with high African-American enrollment. Through the grant, UNCF hopes to emphasize career development, expand the capacity of college faculty to mentor students, and enable more students to gain meaningful job experience through internships and other opportunities.

This focus is attracting more funders who understand that graduating from college is not enough; young people also need help landing jobs and building careers. This can be especially tough for first-generation college grads that come from low-income and minority households and don't have the family or community ties that often lead to professional opportunites. Just yesterday, we wrote about a major grant to address this problem with paid internships.

Related: Opening Doors: This Funder Wants to Close the Internship Gap

More than 80 schools are eligible for grants, paid for by the funds pledged by the Lilly Endowment. UNCF will accept applications and choose winners after a vetting process that begins later this year. Eligible institutions include not only HBCUs, such as Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Morgan State University in Maryland, but also "predominantly black institutions," such as City University of New York–Medgar Evers College, according to the Washington Post.

Lilly Endowment is a longtime supporter of the UNCF. Including this recent pledge, the funder has given more than $100 million over the years, according to UNCF's president, Michael L. Lomax. Other funders, recognizing the value of HBCUs, have also stepped up to support UNCF. The largest gift in the organization's history was $1.6 billion, awarded in phases by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, beginning in 1999. Other funders supporting the UNCF include the Annenberg Foundation and the Lowe's Charitable and Educational Foundation, the philanthropic branch of home improvement retailer Lowe's.

Other organizations that support HBCUs, as well as individual schools themselves, have also received funder support. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund has received generous gifts from Apple and Toyota, while the Kresge, Arthur Vining Davis, and Mellon foundations support individual schools. Davis, for example, sets aside a portion of its higher education funding to support HBCUs.