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HBCU Endowments: Why Should I Give Back?

Updated on January 28, 2015

The Curious Case of Shaw University

It was as an undergraduate at North Carolina A&T on a Friday evening Me and an acquaintance of mine had set out to talk to some more than likely uninterested coeds. The fact that they were uninterested didn’t dissuade us one bit the thrill was in the hunt. All was going as expected we had approached five females and been rejected seven times and we were awaiting our next target when a small vehicle pulled up to the parking lot at McCain Hall and three fine females exited the vehicle. Suffice to say we were on them like a pack of Plott hounds on a jack rabbit. It turns out they were students at Shaw University in Raleigh NC. In an attempt to produce some conversation I asked more about Shaw. They didn’t have anything really positive to say and complained about the traditional way the school was ran mostly in regards to the lack of Coed dormitories and visitations. They said it put an end to any comfortable physical interaction between the male and female students but unintentionally facilitated the homosexual student’s sexual affairs.

I was amazed at how they talked about their university. When I thought about Shaw University I thought of the Black Baptist of North Carolina I thought of it being the alma mater of the founders of other colleges and I thought about it being the first HBCU south of the Mason-Dixon Line. They weren’t very proud of the present state of the school. I thought they were exaggerating. Surely the historical Shaw University with a legacy that served as a guiding light for black education in the south could not have come to such a low down place. But anyway I never heard from the young ladies again after that day. No I didn’t get their numbers. Weather that was due to the ladies bad taste in men or my crippling social awkwardness will be left to the reader to decide. I’ll give you a clue they had bad judgment of men and will probably end up impregnated by an abusive alcoholic drug dealer who cheats on them with other men. No I’m not bitter it’s just the way things work. But any way…

Many years later I had the opportunity to finally visit Shaw University. As I pulled in to the campus I arrived expecting to be humbled by this bastion of black achievement and smitten with the legacy that the gentrified buildings held within their bricks. I was about to climb that fabled ebony tower tread where James Shepard, Henry Cheatem , Willie Gary, and other great men had once walked. That didn’t happen. What did happen was that I felt as if I had gone back into the late 80s. I didn’t see a building that looked as if it were constructed in the last two decades. I didn’t pay it much attention just figured they were going for a retro look and continued onward to what I considered to be the jewel of any college campus the library. I wandered the campus expecting to find a conservatory of great Negro literature sitting beside copies of Homers Iliad and Plato’s Republic within walls decorated with original black art all donated by two centuries worth of affluent alumni. I stood in front of a tan two story building smaller than a football field thinking that it was the library. I laughed thinking that it couldn’t be it and set off to find the elusive building. I asked to gentleman I assumed were walking to class where the library was and they pointed back behind me to the building I had just left. While I was disappointed I remembered it was a library and there is an old adage about judging a book by its cover so I entered expecting a surprise. That surprise never came though I admit I only looked around the first floor that was disappointing enough. It was a very small selection of books very few computers and while the art was unique and beautiful there were maybe only two pieces. I didn’t know what to think as I walked out wondering the cause of this academic institutions decline. While walking back to the car my question was answered at the foot of the underwhelming obelisk that served as the bell tower. The courtyard below it was covered in brick. Near the very base of the bell tower were a small set of bricks with the names of those inscribed in them of those who donated money for its creation. I assumed the small amount of bricks to be a reflection of the small size of the tower. That’s when my theory formulated. Is Shaw Universities decline due to a lack of alumni support? I decided to Google to see what I could find about Shaw Universities endowment. What I found both confirmed my theory and astounded me.

Shaw University was founded in December 1 1865 in Raleigh NC by Henry Martin Tupper and the American Baptist Home Mission Society. The university trained many educators and established a law medical and divinity school. Many of its alumni went on to become prominent leaders in their community. Today the only one of the three professional schools that still operates is the divinity school. One can assume this because of the schools affiliation with and support it receives from the General Baptist State Convention of North Carolina and the National Baptist Convention. You can’t expect any university to maintain a law and medical school or a descent undergraduate program with $23 million.

How did Shaw University come to this? Shaw University is 150 years old and has for years graduated thousands of successful alumni. One wonders why such a low endowment? The problem is not reserved for Shaw University.

The HBCU Endowment problem

“black people don’t give back to their schools” I hear this quite often and while I do wish I could argue against that statement its true. Historically Black Colleges and Universities have been struggling with financial issues since they began. This could be attributed to a lot of causes: Racism, lack of financial resources, or even to the devotion of its alumni and student body to the cause for civil rights meant they didn’t devote their energies to accumulation of economic capital meaning that there were less resources to invest in their alma maters.

No matter what the cause of the endowment problem is it must be addressed and fixed before it is to late. Many may say that it isn’t really isn’t an issue and that HBCUs have operated under these circumstances for years so what is the big deal now?

Well the field of higher education is a very competitive one. Since the end of segregation the captive market that was the black student and scholar had many other options. For example Jaheim Pendergrass graduates from high school with a 4.0 GPA and a high SAT score. His options for were to continue his education are limitless. Jaheim has brought it down to two options Howard University or Harvard University. Jaheim knows the prestige that Howard holds in his community. Others in his family may have attended before or maybe some of his high school teachers. Jaheim would love to go to school on the “hill” as it is affectionately known but Harvard is still very intriguing. Harvard being the oldest University in the United States is perhaps even more prestigious than Howard. Howard University has an endowment of $460 million making it one of the top endowments among HBCUs coupled with the legacy in his community makes it an appealing prospect. What it may be lacking Jaheim thinks it would still be better to go to Howard than to some PWI where he will be culturally disenfranchised. But then Jaheim looks at Harvard whose endowment has $32 billion which dwarfs Howard`s. That large endowment allows Harvard to build state of the art facilities attract the top students, scholars, and researchers. Why wouldn’t Jaheim attend Harvard?

Historically Black Schools have been dealing with this issue for years figuring out how to compete with other schools for students and faculty. The problem is expected to get even worse due to globalization. HBCUs must prepare to compete with universities all over the world. The only way to do this is with a descent endowment. Its hard to compete with the best when you don’t have the endowment of the best.

Top Universities in the United States (US News):

  1. Princeton University

  2. Harvard University

  3. Yale University

  4. Columbia University

  5. Stanford University

  6. University of Chicago

  7. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

  8. Duke University

  9. University of Pennsylvania

  10. California Institute of Technology

Now we look at the top university endowments (US News):

  1. Harvard University $32,689,489,000

  2. Yale University $20,708,793,000

  3. Princeton University $18,786,132,000

  4. Stanford University $18,688,868,000

  5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology $10,857,976,000

  6. University of Michigan $8,272,366,000

  7. Columbia University $8,197,880,000

  8. Texas A&M State University $8,072,054,790

  9. University of Pennsylvania $7,741,396,000

  10. University of Notre Dame $6,959,051,000

Despite three differences the list are the same and we can be certain that the top ten schools that weren’t in the top endowments were not far out. Now we can compare the top ten HBCU endowments to the top schools in the nation and see where HBCUs stand in 2013.

Top HBCU endowments (

  1. Howard University $513,667,000

  2. Spelman College $327,171,000

  3. Hampton University $254,103,000

  4. Meharry Medical College $124,965,000

  5. Florida A&M State University $115,281,000

  6. Tennessee State University $42,970,000

  7. Texas Southern University $42,179,000

  8. Virginia State University $38,192,000

  9. North Carolina A&T State University $32,959,000

  10. Winston-Salem State University $29,543,000

The information was compiled by the National Association of College and University Business Officers. Some schools declined to provide the information which indicates that some schools may have higher endowments. Morehouse and Prairie View A&M are thought to have endowments that put it in the top ten. The US News reports that the average college endowment was $355 Million in 2013 meaning that all but one HBCU are below average in endowment size. The National Association of College University Business Officers reported the Average to $537 Million meaning that every HBCU was below average but also reported a median endowment of $101 million meaning that five HBCUs may be in the top half of endowment size.

My alma mater is defunct

Maybe that was a bit of an exaggeration. Why compare an HBCU to the Ivy league? Very few schools can financially compare to them. There are many other great colleges that HBCUs have similar endowment sizes so it really isn’t a problem. This may be true but that is only that top ten of HBCUs. Where do the others stand? What is the worst case scenario for schools with low endowments? The worst case scenario is the school closes. Those HBCU closings are occurring more frequently than ever. Its not that these schools weren’t any good and could not compete for students they failed either due to financial mismanagement or lack of funds.

Defunct HBCU:

Bishop College

Daniel Payne College

Friendship College

Guadalupe College

Kitrell College

Leland University

Mary Holmes College

Mississippi Industrial College

Mount Herman Female Seminary

Natchez College

Saint Pauls College

Storer College

Roger Williams College

Western University

Durham College (my fathers alma mater)

Immanuel Lutheran College

Lewis College of Business

Some of these schools closed many years ago (Bishop College 1888, Roger Williams College 1929) while others have closed recently (Saint Pauls College 2013, Lewis College of Business 2013). Some schools are doing quite well financially now while some are barely holding on. These endangered HBCUs have been holding on for the past few years by the skin of their teeth or may have just recently come into turmoil due to an event or financial mismanagement.

Endangered HBCU:

Morris Brown College

Barber-Scotia College

Lemoyne-Owen College

Shorter College

Virginia University of Lynchburg

South Carolina State University

Fisk University

With the direction we are going now we can only expect more closing to occur in the near future. In order for the HBCU to compete in the academic community it must be able to do so financially. We must change the culture in these schools so that alumni understand that it is their responsibility to give back and make the school what they want it to be. If not the school will go the same direction as say Durham College which after 33 years of operation it closed down in 1980.

The Durham College Alma Mater:

Blue and Gold you have one end

To help your students comprehend

You make the wheels of commerce go

You stand behind the business flow

You seek to train the mind and hand

To meet the business worlds demand

You teach the art and skills that aid

The never ending flow of trade

In peace and war throughout the years

Blue and gold have been pioneers

And still the training which you stress

Supplies a need and bring success


Blue and gold blue and gold

We will always love thee

No matter where we may be from us ne`er depart

It will always remain in our hearts

Our hearts are cheerful filled with joy and pride

We will never forget you

Three cheers three cheers for the blue and gold

The Case of Palmer Memorial Institute

This blog focuses on the financial woes of historically black colleges and universities but I would like to stray for a moment and consider a unique institution in black education which is the boarding school. When you think of a boarding school your mind probably goes directly to the northeast picturing old money schools such as Phillip Exter or Deerfield Academy. You might picture elite white old money northern families sending their sons and daughters away to these schools to get a world class education and network with other elite families. Little known are the numerous black boarding schools that littered the United States. Today only four are still in operation: the Laurinburg Institute Laurinburg NC, The Piney Woods School Piney Woods MS, Pine Forge Academy Pine Forge PA, and Redemption Christian Academy Troy NY.

While no longer in operation there is one notable one located off I-40 between Greensboro and Raleigh NC in the small town of Sedalia. The campus is still there and operates as the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum in honor of the schools founder Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown. Dr. Brown founded the school in 1902 in a converted blacksmith shop. She went on to lead the school to become the most prestigious black boarding schools in the country.

The most fascinating thing about Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown was her remarkable fundraising abilities. The Julian Rosenwald fund provided the school with $15,000 in 1916. On April 7 1922 the Memorial Hall, Administration, classroom, and dining hall buildings were all destroyed by fire. For most black schools this would have meant doom but because of Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown fundraising efforts the school persevered. In 1922 she appealed to the American Missionary Association for financial support. The association agreed to but with the stipulation that she raise $300,000 which she successfully did. Dr. Brown gained the financial support from Galen L Stone who founded the stock brokerage firm Hayden Stone & Company. In 1925 Mr. Stone donated $75,000 for matched funds. The Sedalia Singers were modeled off of the Fisk Jubilee singers as a traveling fundraising singing group. In 1933 the Sedalia Singers performed at the White House for President Franklin Roosevelt. By 1937 Palmer Memorial Institute was operating without the assistance of the American Missionary Association or public funding. Substantial support for Palmer Memorial Institute also came from Durham NC black wall street. By the time Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown relinquished her control of the school to her successor Miss Wilhelmina Crosson she had raised an endowment of $1.5 million dollars in her 45 years a substantial sum for that period.

Without Dr. Browns prolific fundraising ability and financial savvy Palmer Memorial Institute began to suffer. In 1966 Palmer began to experience financial issues due to rising costs, decreased enrollment, and a lack of fundraising. In 1971 a fire destroyed the Alice Freeman Palmer Building which housed classrooms, offices, auditoriums, chapel, and the library. While under the financial minded leadership of Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown the school persevered through a similar situation but failed due to a dwindling endowment. The case of Palmer Memorial Institute is a reflection of the present conditions of many Historically Black Colleges and Universities which forecast their imminent demise if things do not change soon.

Who gives back the most?

Its not fair to assume that HBCU alumni don’t give back at all. Some of the schools percentage of alumni giving stands out from their peers. Below are the top ten schools of alumni giving by percentage of alumni who give back:

HBCU where alumni give back the most (US News)

  1. Claflin University 43%

  2. Spelman College 37%

  3. Morehouse College 29%

  4. Tuskegee University 23%

  5. Livingstone College 21%

  6. Central State University 19%

  7. Fort Valley State University 17%

  8. University of Arkansas Pine Bluff 13%

  9. Johnson C Smith University 13%

  10. Tougaloo College 12%

Ways to give back

A big reason a lot of alumni of HBCUs do not give back to their alma mater is that they don’t know how to or they feel they don’t have enough. Both are horrible irresponsible excuses. There are many ways someone can support their school if they have the real desire to.

Start an endowment- endowments can be used to fund scholarships for students based on academic or athletic merit or even need. They can also be used to support a certain department. For example creating an endowed chair for a certain department allows that department to hire a faculty member when there may not be enough funding from the college to do so. Endowed chairs are often used to bring in high profile educators which raised the profile of the school.

Wills and Life insurance- you can name the school as a beneficiary of your estate and life insurance. You want miss it when you’re dead right? Making the school the beneficiary of a life insurance policy means that you could give more back to your school than you were able to when you were alive.

Matched gifts- some employers have a gift matching program which means the company will match the donation that their employer makes to an institution. Xerox, Bank of America, Wal-mart, State Farm, and many others have this program. Its another way to increase your giving without it more money coming out of your pocket.

Non-monetary gifts

Who said its all about money? Well money is important but there are other ways to contribute to your school than with cash.

Securities- donating stock or other investments are gift that has the potential to appreciate. You can also donate securities and avoid the school paying income tax.

Land- land is a gift that will always appreciate in value. The timber that the land produces gives your school an investment that will yields high dividends. Further more if your school is a land grant the land could also be used for research and in other ways to fulfill the land-grant mission.

Art/literature collections (your own work?)- donating art and literature collections to your alma mater not only gives them a product to sell and brings in money but it is also a way to contribute to the schools cultural assets and adds to its prestige. If you are an artist or writer you could also consider leaving your own art work or writing to the school. This could ensure your legacy is preserved and perhaps studied by scholars in the future. HBCUs have fallen out of favor this in recent years due mostly to Fisk Universities attempt to sell the art collection of famed artist Georgia O`keeffe to escape bankruptcy . The collection included some of O`keeffes, Pablo Picassos, and Renoir and was given with the stipulation that it would never be sold or broken up. This soured trust in many HBCUs making artist thank twice about leaving their works in their care. One notable example is famed Nobel Prize winning writer Toni Morrison who is alumni and former professor at Howard University choosing to leave her papers at Princeton University instead. This move caused controversy but with Howards long term stability in question Can you blame her? Again that’s why endowments are so important no one trust a broke college. Never the less if you are an artist or writer you should consider leaving your cultural legacy behind at your alma mater.

Equipment- one of the ways you can ensure that your donation will be used the way you want it to be used for is to simply donate what you would want the school to have. If you are interested in increasing your schools STEM capacity donating a High Performance Liquid Chromatographer will benefit it by increasing the schools research abilities. If you are interested in music donate a piano or any other musical instrument which could be used in future performances or training future musicians.

Your corpse- ok hear me out. There are three HBCU medical schools that are still in operation. They are Howard University Medical School, Morehouse Medical School, and Meharry Medical college. In order to train effective medical personnel medical schools need “practice material”. The proper term is called an “Anatomical Gift” and making one of these is a way to make one last contribution to humanity by helping to train the people who will save lives in the future. Anatomical gifts are also used in scientific research. Also once they have utilized your gift to its fullest extent they often cremate the remains and return them back to the family. But honestly why not? You won’t care you’ll be dead.

So Give Back

As alumni it is your responsibility to give back to your alma mater. You want to make it better and you won’t to ensure that it is here for future generations. It is almost impossible to read anything about historically black colleges without reading about if they will survive the next twenty years or if they are relevant enough to be worth savings. When alumni invest in their alma maters it increases to productivity and relevance of their school. Often alumni and students complain about their schools and then abandon it. They don’t understand that as a stakeholder its their responsibility to make their school better and make it what they would like it to be. In 50 years if all 106 Historically Black colleges have closed their doors then it is our fault and no one else’s so we must act now.

Do you give back to your HBCU or plan to?

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