Can NFTs Help HBCUs Close The Endowment Gap?

Black people lived right by the railroad tracks, and the train would shake their houses at night. I would hear it as a boy, and I thought: I’m gonna make a song that sounds like that. – Little Richards

The individual, familial, community, and institutional wealth gaps between African America and all other groups continues to widen. Despite the consequential donations from Mackenzie Scott and Michael Bloomberg in 2020 to HBCUs it is simply not enough consistently and overwhelming enough to put out the fire. That fire being the HWCU-HBCU endowment gap, which is over $100 to $1 – and widening. Ironically, African America is often standing there with a water hose in their hand watching their house burn while waiting on their neighbor to bring a bucket of water over and help. Why do we say African America has the water hose? By HBCU Money estimates, African America’s tuition revenue value to all colleges is worth $60 billion annually – only $6 billion of that goes makes it way to HBCUs. There are 100 plus HBCUs, but only two have institutional banking relationships with African American owned banks. In other words, there are things that if we just looked inwardly there would be substantive change happening. Instead, we continue to wait for the “lottery” of other’s grace to befall upon us. And to that point, one of the greatest financial opportunities of our lifetime maybe falling upon us to use a resource within our institutions – our creativity.

It is no secret that African American creativity drives American culture. African American creativity has and is often exploited to the social and financial benefit of other groups. There maybe no greater example of that than hip-hop (and the music industry in general) where African American musicians created a genre of music that is now global in reach, but very little of it is actually owned by African Americans. Enter, the internet. Enter, NFTs. The internet is not flat nor is it democratized – after all even on the internet all of the mediums like Amazon, Facebook, Alphabet, Twitter, Square, etc. none are owned by African Americans. However, there is an increasing amount of decentralization that seems to be taking root in pockets of the World Wide Web where opportunities can be staked out. For instance, had an HBCU endowment in July 2011 purchased 5,000 bitcoins which at the time were $13.91 for a total of $69,550, then that HBCU today would have a value of $330 million today. To the best of our knowledge, there are no HBCUs holding bitcoin or any other cryptocurrencies in their portfolio. And while there is still plenty of time to add cryptocurrencies to the portfolio, there is also a new opportunity that one could easily argue is the equivalent of buying cryptocurrencies ten years ago. The NFT.

NFTs or non-fungible tokens are “Non-fungible” more or less means that it’s unique and can not be replaced with something else. For example, a bitcoin is fungible — trade one for another bitcoin, and you’ll have exactly the same thing. A one-of-a-kind trading card, however, is non-fungible. If you traded it for a different card, you’d have something completely different.”, says Mitchell Clark from The Verge. NFTs also work off the Ethereum blockchain, Ethereum being a cryptocurrency and blockchains are a digital distributed, decentralized, public ledger that exists across a network. So what can be a NFT? Again, Mitchell Clark from The Verge, “NFTs can really be anything digital (such as drawings, music, your brain downloaded and turned into an AI), but a lot of the current excitement is around using the tech to sell digital art.” NFTs are already showing their potential. A 14-year old girl made over $1 million from selling 8,000 NFTs according to Business Insider. The most expensive NFT sold to date went for $69 million at Christie’s. An amount that would still be greater than any donation ever given to an HBCU. Now imagine unlocking the creativity that exist on HBCU campuses with students, faculty, and staff.

This could ultimately be a win-win for everyone involved if setup properly. HBCUs can provide the space, hardware, infrastructure, and other support needed while students, faculty, and staff can provide the immense creative capital that we know. Unlocking African America creativity on campuses could quite literally means tens if not hundreds of billions into African American families, communities, and HBCUs. The incentive for HBCUs to invest in this infrastructure is simple. Financially more stable graduates, improved retention rates, potentially higher alumni donor rates, and a new stream of income for endowments.

Students could see themselves earning enough to reduce or eliminate student borrowing costs. An immense hinderance to HBCU graduates creating generational wealth for themselves and their family. This barrier to wealth also is something that it could be argued contributes to poor alumni donor giving at HBCUs. HBCU donations of significance often come from older HBCU alumni who tend to wait and give a large donation either at the end of life or through their estate once they have passed on. HBCU students on a whole as reflecting in HBCU Pell Grant numbers are coming from far more low-income backgrounds their PWI counterparts. Brookings reports that almost 60% of HBCU students expect $0 in family contributions (graph below) to their education as opposed to less than one-third for non-HBCU students. On the other end less than 6 percent of HBCU students expect their family to contribute at least $19,300 to their education versus over 20 percent of non-HBCU students. This means that despite HBCUs on average costing significantly less than their PWI counterparts, HBCU students are still more likely to graduate with student loan debt and significant student loan debt loads. The most recent HBCU Money report showing that 86 percent of HBCU graduates finish with debt and a median of over $34,000 in student loan debt versus 40 percent and $24,000 in student loan debt for those coming from Top 50 endowed colleges and universities.

For HBCUs, the previous mentioned is great for their long-term sustainability, but in this case there is a huge financial reward to be had by HBCU endowments today. By providing the infrastructure, helping ensure the intellectual property rights, and more – HBCUs can create financial partnerships with students, faculty, and staff. This means that in the same way there is NIL (name, image, likeness) happening in collegiate sports, HBCUs too could use these partnerships as a means to recruit more African American faculty who often cringe at the pay rates at HBCUs. It also means that if a student, faculty, or staff produces an NFT for example that sells for $100,000, then potentially on a 50-50 split that the HBCU’s endowment just increased by $50,000. There is also the opportunity to have a foray into the entrepreneurship that is already taking root in the NFT as well as the supporting properties that will support it as an industry and asset class. As we mentioned, intellectual property attorneys in this new age will become even more valuable. There are currently six HBCU law schools who could create a focus on both IP and on digital IP in particular and those schools would be rewarded handsomely by being at the forefront of the curve. Simply put, there is just too much opportunity and money that has yet to even scratch the surface of value for HBCUs to not get involved in NFTs.

The acute importance of closing the endowment gap must be at the forefront of HBCU alumni conversations if our institutions are to be sustained into the next Millenia. It must be if we are to take serious the closing of the individual and institutional wealth gaps for African America. More importantly if HBCUs are to move beyond simply surviving and into empowered institutions that are truly able to serve the social, economic, and political interest of African America and the Diaspora, then having the institutional wealth and endowments necessary to do so is paramount. Climbing this mountain will be no easy task, but we can simply look at the wealth that has been created by our labor and our creativity as an enduring possibility of possibility. This time we must be the ownership of that creativity and protect its ownership at all costs.

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