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From Covid aid to record donations: Influx of funding helps keep HBCUs' doors open

Some HBCUs struggled to stay afloat for years. But public and private funds, the rise of distinguished alumni, and renewed broad support for these schools is helping some thrive.
Jubilee Hall at Fisk University on Jan. 1, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn.
Jubilee Hall at Fisk University on Jan. 1, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn.Raymond Boyd / Getty Images file

Before her sophomore year at Fisk University, Asia Williams was concerned that her legendary historically Black college would shut down because it had run out of money.

The school, founded in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1866, had survived financial concerns for much of its existence. This time, however, the issues were aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic, which was a fiscal double whammy: It cost the already-strapped institution admissions and dormitory fees, and the university was forced to spend on Covid-19 safety protocols.

It all added up to consternation for Williams, a music business major.

"My mom and I began to have conversations about transferring just in case things got worse," she said. "It was a little nerve-wracking, because there was a chance I would have to restart my whole college career."

Williams' anxiety was symptomatic of that of thousands of students at historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, institutions that are the lifeblood of higher education and power sources for Black communities. And yet, Fisk — like other HBCUs of precarious financial standing — plowed on, buoyed by its inherent ability to negotiate troubled times and significantly by federal and philanthropic support inspired by the nation's social justice movement.

Millions of dollars — $260 million alone from MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of founder Jeff Bezos — has been pledged to HBCUs in recent months, an influx of funds that pulled some colleges from the brink to financial solvency.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools relieved Fisk University from three years probation in September. Fisk was also among several HBCUs that received donations, including part of a gift from Diageo, a global beverage company, "to help shape a more equitable society by providing opportunities for future leaders," Debra Crew, president of Diageo North America, said in a statement. The company's $10 million pledge will fund permanent endowments at more than two dozen HBCUs across the country, to help provide financial assistance to students. The commitment was designed to have a "sustainable impact on underrepresented communities," she said.

The Black Lives Matter movement that surged last summer did not just elevate the awareness of police brutality among the masses. It also inspired people and businesses to support diversity and inclusion on many fronts, including many of the 107 HBCUs that either teetered on the brink of extinction or struggled mightily.

The fact that HBCUs produce 20 percent of the country's Black college graduates, even though they are only 3 percent of all colleges in the country, speaks to their importance.

"And therein lies the power and influence of HBCUs," said Stanley Nelson, the acclaimed documentarian whose 2017 film, "Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities," examines HBCUs' impact on America. Nelson pointed out in an interview that Vice President Kamala Harris went to Howard University in Washington, D.C.

"That tells you everything," Nelson said. "These schools have been the conduit for Black people entering the middle class. And in some ways, after more than a hundred years, the mission of HBCUs has not changed: Give a chance to go to college for individuals who otherwise wouldn't have gotten it. And they've done an effective job at it."

But many institutions — through mismanagement, low alumni giving compared to predominantly white institutions and lack of government and private support — have had a difficult time sustaining financial stability.

"In the best of times, many HBCUs survive on a thin budget," Bethune-Cookman University President E. LaBrent Chrite said. "You add Covid-19 to the mix and it becomes quite a challenge."

Students sitting outside Flora B. Curtis Hall at Bethune-Cook University.
Students sitting outside Flora B. Curtis Hall at Bethune-Cook University.Jeff Greenberg / Universal Images Group via Getty Images file

Chrite should know. When he arrived on the Bethune-Cookman campus in Daytona Beach, Florida, from the University of Denver in 2019, the school was on academic probation imposed by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. It had an $8 million budget deficit and was on the verge of losing its accreditation. Last year, it was days away from its all collapsing, Chrite said, when it got a boost from an unlikely source.

In an extraordinary move, the state of Florida funneled $13 million to the small private school, with a commitment of yearly support.

"Our survival was not inevitable," he said. "But the state of Florida recognized the critical and enduring, historic importance of this institution and made an unprecedented commitment. All of that money is dedicated at reducing the cost of access and assisting students. It also helped shore up the balance sheet that gave other investors the confidence in our future. It's hard to overstate the importance of this support."

Combine the state's efforts with the record $10 million raised in alumni and friends' giving, and Bethune-Cookman is off probation and trending toward a stable foundation.

"We're in the best shape as could be expected," Chrite said. "We're not in a surplus, but we expect to balance our budget, which is a huge deal from where we were not that long ago."

The same could be said for Virginia Union University. The Richmond college's surplus grew from $200,000 to $2 million after it got a $1 million grant from TikTok, $5 million from the federal CARES Act and $3 million from the Paycheck Protection Program, a Small Business Administration program that helps businesses keep their employees on the payroll during the pandemic.

"No one has seen times like this," said President Hakim Lucas, who led the school's emergency recovery response. "One, the environment challenge with Covid and how it affects the business of education was huge. And two, you have the social justice unrest and how it has propelled HBCUs. Those two different worlds collided last summer."

The pandemic put HBCUs in adjustment mode. Fast.

"The questions became, Will you try to fortify yourself and sustain, try to make it through?" Lucas said. "Or would you take a more radical approach and prepare for new life after Covid? Covid-19 was a permanent disruption. Business would never be the same. For me, for us, it was: Grab your nails. Grab your hammer and build a new university, because there was no going back. We never closed. It was all about accelerating, going faster, because we are needed."

The community feel of HBCUs mean Black students do not have to be concerned about being profiled or followed around in stores — priceless commodities.

Predominantly white institutions "prepare their students for careers," Lucas added. "We prepare our students for life. 'What do you do when police pull you over?' 'What do you do to get access to a mortgage?' 'How do you have to dress on the interview for that internship?' 'How do you eat at a business dinner?' It's a unique, special environment that has to be preserved."

To do that requires that the doors stay open, which requires funding. Scott's giving to HBCUs has been staggering. Most of her donations were the largest single donation some schools had ever received. Prairie View A&M University in Texas got $50 million, $10 million of which is earmarked for an emergency fund for juniors and seniors with financial challenges because of the pandemic. The rest goes toward its endowment.

Political science major and senior Jayla Allen in her dorm room at Prairie View AM University, a public historically black university, in Prairie View, Texas on Friday Sept. 6, 2019.
Political science major and senior Jayla Allen in her dorm room at Prairie View AM University, a public historically black university, in Prairie View, Texas on Sept. 6, 2019.Melina Mara / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro got $45 million, and Norfolk State University in Virginia and Morgan State University in Baltimore got $40 million each. Virginia State University in Petersburg got $30 million. Bowie State University in Maryland and Alcorn State University in Lorman, Mississippi, got $25 million each. Claflin University in South Carolina got $20 million, and Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina and Clark Atlanta University each got $15 million, among other contributions.

"MacKenzie Scott's donation was a game changer for us," Norfolk State President Javaune Adams-Gaston said. "You can breathe a sigh of relief and focus on doing what we are here to do, which is to give our students an opportunity for excellence in the classroom and development on who they are going to be as leaders in the world.

"Also, the $40 million gift was transformative because it helps our endowment, helps our students who have financial struggles and creates transformative programming and opportunities so that our students can have success," she said. "It helps us create a pathway for the future. We want to focus on the longevity of the university."

Adams-Gaston said that while discrimination has been a scar on America for centuries, the movement for social justice engineered by Black Lives Matter last year has spurred the surge in recognition of the value of HBCUs. Powerhouse companies like Netflix, IBM, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Motors and many others have disbursed funds to them.

"The social justice movement has gotten people's attention on the injustices that have been occurring," Adams-Gaston said. "We look at Covid, and the health disparities in the Black community came to light and the ongoing issue of stress in our community. It's all been a wake-up call, a terrible, unfortunate way to awaken people who want to do something that really helps. And they know when they help HBCUs, they are helping the country."

Nelson, the filmmaker, said the awareness of the relevance of Black colleges should be capitalized on.

"Who knows how long this moment will last?" asked Nelson, whose parents went to Talladega College in Alabama and Howard University. "It changed their lives. And because it changed their lives, it changed mine. And this is not just my story.

"But HBCUs have been existing on the margins," he said. "The endowment of the Harvard Business School is larger than the endowments of all HBCUs combined. . ... Now is a time to take advantage of this enlightenment of what they represent."

Chrite of Bethune-Cookman said HBCUs' history of elevating communities and leading social justice movements of the past with sit-ins and demonstrations validates the need for them to remain an academic resource for Black students.

"It is a more critical time in this country to be thinking on the importance of HBCUs," Chrite said. "Even before the recent nightmares of nationalism and violence on communities of color, these institutions were the tip of the spear in recognizing and closing the chasm between ability and potential and opportunity and access.

"And that, in many ways, represents the very best of this country," he said. "We were born of struggle. These institutions are incredibly resilient. These HBCU jewels deserve the attention and investment that we have seen over the last several months that we hope will sustain."

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CORRECTION, Feb. 23 (6:27 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the amount of Diageo's charitable contribution to a group of HBCUs. It was $10 million, not $25 million.