It’s a critical moment for America’s historically black colleges and universities.
That was the message from U.S. Rep. Alma Adams of North Carolina to dozens of HBCU leaders Tuesday at a forum hosted by Delaware State University in Dover.
Five HBCUs have shut their doors within the last five years. And Cheyney University near Philadelphia has teetered on the brink this year, although there are signs the school could be on a path to survival.
“Times are critical right now,” said Adams. “Fundraising and getting the equitable funding that we need has been a problem.”
Solving the unique economic challenges these colleges and universities face is a key part of the HBCU Philanthropy Symposium, which started nine years ago to help schools share fundraising ideas.
Adams said some HBCUs are facing falling endowment funds and reduced giving from philanthropic groups — and some problems go farther back.
“From the outset, there has not been an equal distribution of the funding in terms of federal funding” to HBCUs, she said.
Cheyney, the oldest HBCU in the nation, has faced declining enrollment and a $43 million debt to the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. Earlier this month, the school got something of a reprieve following its first balanced budget in nearly a decade and a state budget that includes $4 million in scholarships for Cheyney students.
If school leaders can keep the budget balanced for the next three years, the state will forgive $30 million of the $43 million the university owes to the state system — and keep its accreditation.
“We have so many students that drop out of school now, not because of educational challenges, but because of the finances associated with it,” said Vita Pickrum, VP of institutional advancement and president of the DSU Foundation. “Our alumni need to realize and to remember the success they’ve had in life. What was the root of that?”
Almost 20% of the nation’s African-American graduates — and 25% of African-American graduates in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics or STEM fields — come from HBCUs, even though they make up just 3% of American colleges and universities.
Adams highlighted those statistics in her keynote address.
“I am a living testament of what HBCUs have always done for students who simply need an opportunity, just like an opportunity that I needed 50 years ago,” said Adams, who graduated from North Carolina A&T State University in 1968 and received her master’s degree in Art Education in 1972. She was elected to Congress in 2014 after serving 20 years in the state House in North Carolina.
She told the group there is an urgent need to make sure that HBCUs across the country are financially sustainable.
“It’s imperative that HBCUs are at this table of philanthropy because if we’re not at the table, we’re probably on the menu, and our institutions cannot then have the resources that they need,” Adams said.
Earlier this year, billionaire tech executive and philanthropist Robert F. Smith shocked students at Morehouse College when he announced that he would pay off student loan debt for the 2019 graduating class. Adams hopes Smith’s gift inspires others to follow his lead.
“I know every development officer here would want to find some Mr. Smiths, but I’m convinced that those actions will motivate others,” Adams said.
Motivating others was part of Smith’s mission in making such a grand gesture.
“He challenged our alums. He challenged others in the community. He has challenged those who are leaders in the investment space,” said Felicia Murphy-Phillips, senior leadership gifts officer at Morehouse. “What he’s done is really opened the minds of those who generally may not think that they have enough to give. He’s really about paying it forward.”
While Smith’s gift to the Morehouse class of 2019 is estimated to total $40 million, Adams said smaller gifts supporting HBCUs should be celebrated, too.
“Sometimes small gifts we forget about, but they can play an important role and can make a big difference,” she said.
Morehouse is taking steps to acknowledge those smaller donations.
“When anyone gives any amount, we actually send them a welcome packet, keep in touch with them, kind of connect them and work with them through getting a recurring gift,” Murphy-Phillips said.
In stark contrast to Cheyney’s troubles, DSU, also an HBCU institution, seems to be thriving with enrollment steadily increasing for the past eight years.
“We have those kinds of problems of ‘where do we house them all?’ Those are good kinds of problems,” said DSU President Wilma Mishoe. She hopes hosting this event will help other schools experience some of that same success. “So that we can help our sister and brother institutions, and we never know when we will need their help someday.”