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HBCUs face funding disparities, but recent boosts in philanthropy dollars

Posted at 7:09 AM, Feb 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-22 07:09:38-05

WILBERFORCE, Ohio (WXYZ) — Each week in February, Action News has been exploring the impact of Historically Black Colleges and Universities or HBCUs.

These institutions of higher learning were founded before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the specific goal of educating Black students when equal opportunities didn't exist in segregated white colleges.

During the course of this month we've looked at the legacy and the future of Michigan's first and only HBCU, which is re-opening this spring as the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design.

RELATED | Re-opening Michigan's only HBCU: What Pensole Lewis means for Detroit

We heard from former Lewis College of Business students about the legacy of its founder Violet T. Lewis, who started the school in Indianapolis with a handful of used typewriters and a $50 loan. The college began as a place for Black women to learn secretary skills. They became some of the first people of color to work for Michigan companies like Ford, GM, and Michigan Bell.

RELATED | Former Lewis College graduates reflect ahead of school's re-opening

Then we toured one of the nation's very first HBCUs, which happens to be Violet T. Lewis' Alma mater; Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, Ohio, where 21% of this fall's enrolled students are from Michigan.

RELATED | Exploring HBCUs: Wilberforce University in Ohio home to many MI & Detroit students

Now we turn to historic funding challenges HBCUs continue to face, and what experts say could be changing.

For years, historically Black college endowments — private and public — have trailed behind their non-HBCU counterparts, in some cases by at least 70 percent according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

And among Black colleges, a central funding stream; philanthropy, is not spread out evenly.

“A lot of entities like to support organizations that have a history of acquiring funds," said Dr. Krystal L. Williams, director of the Education, Policy, and Equity Research Collective. "But where do we start?"

Williams, who is also an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Georgia has studied and written about funding challenges HBCUs face.

“They have a long-standing history and tradition of being able to do more with less, but unfortunately they should not have to do that," she told Action News.

Williams points out that public and private HBCUs are funded differently; public or land grant HBCUs received a substantial portion of their budgets from state governments.

"There is a long-standing history of state governments not funding those institutions on par with their land grant non-HBCU peers," she said.

While private HBCUs like Wilberforce tend to be more tuition-driven and rely heavily on private gifts and philanthropy.

Some of the very first Black colleges including Wilberforce got started with the help of donations and non-profit support. Founded before the Civil War in 1856, Wilberforce received help from the AME Church as it was established, and now like most private HBCUs relies on tuition, federal Pell grants, and gifts.

"Spelman, Howard, Hampton, Florida A&M, those are the institutions, the larger, better-known institutions that in many ways we compete for to get a little bit of the spotlight ourselves," said Wilberforce president, Dr. Elfred Anthony Pinkard.

Miah Powell on HBCU funding - 1

In an Associated Press analysis of Black college funding, some of those household names were outliers when it comes to endowments. A handful of schools brought in substantially more dollars than the rest.

In 2019 Spelman College brought in a whopping $184,180 per student in endowments. Morehouse School of Medicine landed $180,463 per student.

Even on the lower side of the higher end — Howard University, Alma mater of Vice President Kamala Harris, received a little more than $73,000 per student.

Howard is home to Cass Tech graduate Miah Powell, who wears her HBCU pride on her sleeves, literally.

“Here’s a prime hoodie that we have and here’s one of our logo," she displayed via Zoom from Howard.

Powell is only in her second year at Howard and already she's a business owner, after launching clothing line HBCU famous. The brand celebrates the Black college experience, something Miah knew she wanted even while in high school.

She started the line in February of 2020 and now has brand ambassadors all around the country.

“I knew that HBCUs were very selective, and not only that — they’re not cheap," Powell said.

Both Miah and her mother Cindy, who's a principal at a local high school, are thrilled that Lewis College of Business is getting a second chance in Detroit.

"HBCU Famous" clothing line founder Miah Powell shows off her brand

"I see the impact of HBCUs to our students. And so with Miah we do have family members that attended Howard University so it's kind of been a part of our family tradition," Cindy told Action News. "My son, who doesn't want to go far from home, he's graduating from Cass Tech this year as well and so he's attending Central State University."

Central State is just down the road from Wilberforce in rural Ohio and for years was one of the closest options for Michigan students seeking a traditional HBCU experience.

Howard was always Miah's number one choice, she said. She hopes her clothing line brings more awareness to the importance of HBCUs, not only for their campus culture but for their networking and career opportunities.

Through alumni connections, Miah's landed an internship at Ernst & Young in New York this year.

Take a school like Howard, and compare it with the median endowment for other private HBCUs, which was just under $16,000 in 2019.

Wilberforce's was $10,014 per student in 2019, rising slightly to $11,886 in 2020 and was $10,635 in 2021.

With less than 600 students this fall, around a fifth of them being from Michigan, what draws many students to the small private HBCU can also pose a challenge in fundraising.

Detroiter Rickell Gipson, crowned Miss Sophomore at Wilberforce this fall, sought the school out for its size.

"I wanted a family feel," she said. "I need it to be small."

Many of the students we spoke to on campus touted the small campus as a reason for choosing Wilberforce; its tight knit community and close bond to professors.

But as Dr. Pinkard noted, the smaller school struggles to land on the radar of big donor organizations and top philanthropists.

Miah Powell on HBCU funding - 2

The spotlight Pinkard mentioned though grew brighter around the country after last summer's protests over the murder of George Floyd, he said.

Williams also noted that recently private giving to Black colleges has increased.

“You have individuals like MacKenzie Scott who has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to various HBCU campuses," Williams said.

Scott, ex-wife to Amazon's Jeff Bezos, gave $560 million to more than twenty HBCUs around the country, some of which are smaller with meager endowments.

Even one of her smallest gifts of several million dollars would have been game-changing for Wilberforce, Pinkard said.

But he also applauded Scott's strategy for how her donation was dispersed.

“You can’t sit around and be envious," he said. “We have to let people know what we’re doing.”

Because HBCUs tend to enroll more students from lower-income families who borrow more for college, it becomes harder for these institutions to raise fees, Williams said.

It also makes debt forgiveness that much more impactful, which Wilberforce students felt firsthand in May.

"Your accounts have been cleared," Pinkard said to the 2020-2021 graduating class. "You don’t owe Wilberforce anything.” 

The crowd erupted in screams of both shock and joy in a now-viral video.

With help from the United Negro College Fund and federal pandemic aid dollars, the Board of Trustees agreed to wipe the balance sheets clean from all graduating students that year.

“We looked at the numbers and we were able to do it," Pinkard said. "This was also a way of celebrating and admiring these students for their tenacity and resilience," he continued, speaking specifically on learning through a global pandemic.

Williams said state and federal policies to better fund HBCU students and faculty is one obvious way to help address these inequities.

As for Wilberforce, Pinkard said he's laser-focused on promoting the University's work and student successes in hopes of someday soon finding more of that donor spotlight.

"People have the right to give their money to whomever they wish," Pinkard said. "You have to just be high performing and get the word out of what you're doing in and hopefully you will get the attention of a philanthropist that wants to take a chance," he said.