by Richard F. America
Editor’s Note: In earlier articles for JBHE, Professor America asked “Can HBCUs Compete?” and then offered views on their transformation in “Rebranding HBCUs.” Now Professor America calls for a national fundraising effort to strengthen historically Black colleges and universities well into the twenty-first century. The views expressed are those of the author. We invite readers to comment on Professor America’s proposals.
Today, there are about 100 colleges and universities in the United States known as HBCUs. These historically Black colleges and universities have struggled to find permanent financial resources and most cannot compete on equal terms with many predominantly White institutions. As a result, some of the HBCUs are marginal operations, barely able to remain accredited. And even the strongest HBCUs have competitive disadvantages.
Most HBCUs are in the South. All endure financial stress. That is because of long-standing and unjust patterns of adverse financial and budget decisions. HBCUs were harmed by decision makers, who lacked an interest in their success, or were actively hostile, and opposed to their progress. Those hostile to Black educational progress had the political power to cause underinvestment in HBCU programs, physical plants, and faculty.
But HBCUs have provided many positive benefits. HBCUs develop valuable human resources. They strengthen local communities. Many contribute fully to higher education. And the strongest are also mechanisms for investment in research and public service. They improve the flow of professionals into activities in all areas of society. So, to strengthen American society as a whole, and certain, regions, states, and local communities in particular, it is worthwhile to improve the financial foundations of the HBCUs.
Let’s create a National Endowment based on universal fundraising from all African Americans, and many others who are motivated to participate. This could be a project of an existing organization, such as UNCF, or NAFEO. Or it might require a new institution.
The National Endowment could be created with five corporate, individual or foundation grants of $10 million each. A $50 million endowment would be a great start. Then let’s envision a national annual campaign with the expectation that all 40+ million African Americans, – men, women and children – will contribute to the fund every year. This would be a new obligation, a personal duty to support these key institutions. Of course not all 40 million African Americans will participate but many may contribute more than $25. But with an average contribution of $25 per person, per year the fund would generate $1 billion each year.
The power of persuasive communication and social marketing can be used to meet the goal. We know how to use language, symbols, and celebrity endorsements, to motivate people to wear seatbelts, stop smoking, prevent forest fires, reduce litter, to eat right, not drink and drive, etc. We have the know how. We can use it to support the HBCUs, too. Creative advertising will be key to supporting the HBCUs.
The challenge is to use all media, and the power of social marketing, to make this a norm, expected from all African Americans as part of their community duty. Unrealistic? Impossible? Perhaps. Perhaps, not.
The National Endowment could be located anywhere. If it were in Washington, D.C., close to the headquarters of many organizations in higher education, it could be managed by one of them.
HBCUs would be invited to compete for annual grants from the National Endowment. They would be able to obtain funds to augment their basic budgets, or specific projects, or both. Another use would be to attract and keep heretofore unattainable high quality faculty and administrators by offering them the kinds of salaries and other financial inducements that have been out of reach to many HBCUs.
Like other grant programs, the process would be competitive, not an entitlement. An independent panel would assess the relative strengths of the grant proposals. The performance of HBCUs on the completion of their grant proposals would be assessed by an independent evaluator.
The incentive to qualify for grants from the National Endowment will be a powerful force to change the vision, mission, strategy, self definition, governance, academic performance, and student success rates of the HBCUs.
With this new resource, HBCUs would be able to compete with all other similarly situated colleges and universities in developing stronger curricula, teaching, research, and community and public service.
Poor performers, who do not change or show improvement, will have difficulty in the competitive grant process. The National Endowment should not be used to prop up weak schools. The point is to build quality. The goal of the National Endowment is to help HBCUs become much more competitive within higher education as a whole.
Richard F. America is an adjunct professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.