“The results of philanthropy are always beyond calculation.” – Mary R. Beard
By now we have all heard the breaking news, on May 19th in the year of our lord 2019, Robert F. Smith, an angel of God descended upon the sacred grounds of the AUC in Atlanta, Georgia and in his commencement speech to an estimated 400 Morehouse College graduates also pledged to ensure that his family would pay off each and every one of their student loans. The grant is estimated to be a gift valued at $40 million making it the second largest donation to the HBCU community, still trailing Bill and Camille Cosby’s gift of $20 million in 1988 to Spelman College, which adjusted for inflation is valued at $43.2 million today. Stating the obvious, there still has yet to be a gift of $100 million or more in HBCU history, while HWCUs received 13 gifts of $100 million or more in 2018 alone. This is not to take away at all from Mr. Smith’s gift as the reality that the return on investment to HBCUs on gifts of $10 million or more are often worth a multiplier effect because of the size of our schools, how starved we are for donations of any sort especially major ones, and lastly our schools often being so adept at doing more with less that when we get more it often feels like it maybe overwhelming (it is not, please feel free to give any HBCU $100 million, seriously). But what will this gift mean to the HBCU landscape for the coming generation?
You hear it all the time among recent HBCU graduates and alumni when asked what are some of their primary reasons for not giving back. At the top of the list tends to pertain to the burden of their student loan debt. It is no secret that HBCU students bear a serious burden when it comes to student loan debt in comparison to their HWCU counterparts, especially those counterparts who attend an institution that is among the Top 50 in college endowments. In our 2016-2017 HBCU Graduate Student Loan Report, 86 percent of HBCU graduates finish with student loan debt at a median debt load of $34,131 versus 40 percent of Top 50 college endowment graduates who finish with student loan debt at a median debt load of $24,237. This is due to a mixture of factors, most notably HBCU endowments and familial wealth.
The top 30 college endowments in America control over 50 percent of the nation’s $500 billion college endowment value, while 100 plus HBCUs control less than 1 percent. Combine this with the African/European American wealth gap not moving for 50 years, which according to a Forbes article, “African-Americans had a median wealth of $13,460 in 2016 or only 9.5% of the median wealth of $142,180 of whites”. These major pinpoints make it extremely difficult for HBCU graduates to reduce their student debt loads while matriculating and therefore build wealth after college. The result becomes they are either prolonged before they can become donors or never do and the sword of educated poverty is what they and our institutions fall upon decade after decade with no end in sight.
Morehouse College Class of 2019 though sits in a special position to change the trajectory of not only Morehouse College’s endowment, which we have argued has grossly under performed compared with the likes of Hampton, Spelman, and Howard in its fundraising efforts. This despite the help from the likes of another billionaire, Oprah Winfrey, who herself as put hundreds of Morehouse Men through college as well. To what extent her giving to Morehouse has reduced student loan debt for graduates is unknown, but knowing Ms. Winfrey’s giving history, it has been formidable. However, the Class of 2019 may prove to be worth a longitudinal study in HBCU philanthropy. What happens when an HBCU graduate finishes with little or in this case no student loan debt? Do they see it as an opportunity to be more active donors back to their institution and to other HBCUs. Will their donor rate be higher than other classes? It is no secret that despite the Morehouse pride, the alumni giving rate at the institution has been underwhelming at best. If these 400 young men properly build their wealth and give back to Morehouse and other HBCUs, then have we potentially unlocked one of the keys to making our institutions sustainable? We have also long argued what it would look like if African Americans supported HBCUs in a major way, even if they did not attend an HBCU. Giving because a strong African American institution of any sort is a reflection of themselves in society and that our fates are always intertwined. That a people are ultimately only as strong as the institutions that represent their interest.
However, to do what Robert F. Smith did on an institutional level is going to require more than just one billionaire (or even two), but it is definitely a pivotal step in the right direction – hopefully. After all, it has been over three decades since a donation of this size for HBCUs. The lack of multimillion dollar gifts to HBCUs and African American educational institutions in general has been, continues to be, and is problematic systemically. For instance, if we extrapolated the notion of helping HBCU graduates be debt free, endowments at our institutions would have to be exponentially greater than what they are now. Howard University, Spelman College, and Hampton University, the three largest HBCU endowments, which have current endowments of $688 million, $389 million, and $285 million, respectively, would need endowments exceeding $6 billion, $1.7 billion, and $2.5 billion, respectively. In other words, they currently have a combined endowment value of $1.4 billion but need $10.2 billion, which is a margin of $8.8 billion, greater than Robert F. Smith and Oprah Winfrey’s wealth combined, an estimated $7.6 billion. This of course speaks nothing of and to the number of HBCUs who are hanging on for dear financial life and whose endowments if they even exist are paltry at best. Like many small and state colleges, lesser known HBCUs struggle to attract major donors, but the Morehouse 400 does/should know who they are and should take the vanguard in being integral over the next 50-60 years of ensuring that all HBCUs drink from the fountain of opportunity that they have been granted access too. These young men have a chance to alter the trajectory of the HBCU universe and we hope with this great opportunity they have been gifted that they also know comes a great responsibility. Will they become the greatest HBCU donors in HBCU history? Only time will tell.