Since 2020, the year that saw both the murder of George Floyd and the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Spelman College has received an influx of philanthropic and federal money that has allowed it to take what one leader called transformational moves.

The Atlanta-based historically Black college used over half of its $22 million in federal pandemic relief to provide student aid and implement measures needed to safely transition students back to in-person learning, according to Jessie Brooks, the college’s vice president of institutional advancement. 

Spelman also increased its endowment and bolstered faculty development and recruitment, among other actions, thanks to a $20 million donation from billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott in 2021, Brooks said in an email. And the institution will provide 200 full scholarships for incoming students over the next 10 years through a $40 million donation from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and his wife, producer Patty Quillin.

The Hastings-Quillin donation was “transformational since this will allow the institution to use other scholarship funding to support other deserving students,” Brooks said. 

Spelman is but one example of the unprecedented largess that has gone to historically Black colleges and universities in the years following the start of the pandemic and the protests against police brutality and racism in the wake of Floyd’s murder. Along with other colleges and universities, HBCUs have also received historic amounts of federal, and in some cases, state support to mitigate the effects of the COVID pandemic. 

That increased funding over the past three years has been “significant” for HBCUs, said Raymond Pierce, president and CEO of the Southern Education Foundation. The concern, however, is that the funding “will wane again,” he said.

To some, these influxes harken back to the post-Civil War origins of HBCUs when large organizations like the Carnegie Corp. and John D. Rockefeller’s General Education Board placed a focus on educating newly freed African Americans, according to Pierce. 

To see large donors be “reminded of that injustice, and that reminder came about from George Floyd, I thought was quite interesting,” he said.

New sources of funding

The month after George Floyd’s murder, Hastings and Quillin donated $40 million to Spelman and to Morehouse College, also in Atlanta. Scott, meanwhile, has made the largest contribution to HBCUs: $560 million in one-time gifts to nearly two dozen of the institutions, including $50 million to Prairie View A&M University, in Texas. 

And last year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation committed $100 million over five years to the United Negro College Fund and five other higher ed consortiums and organizations acting as intermediaries to a number of minority serving institutions, including HBCUs. 

“After decades of struggles, someone came along and told you that they were going to finish paying off your mortgage. Imagine the kind of financial relief that that would create for you and those who would accredit you and judge you based on your fiscal solvency.”

Lodriguez Murray

Senior Vice President of Public Policy and Government Affairs at UNCF

Major corporations and businesses have also made large investments in HBCUs in recent years, said Terrell Strayhorn, director of the Center for the Study of HBCUs at Virginia Union University. 

In 2020, Virginia Union, for example, received $6 million from Dominion Energy for STEM programs and $1 million from TikTok for healthcare scholarships. And in 2022, the university received $1 million from Bank of America to prepare graduates for financial careers.

The renewed conversation around racial equity also influenced historic investments in federal funding for HBCUs. That included more than $5 billion through pandemic relief laws — the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act and the American Rescue Plan — and $1.6 billion in debt relief to 45 institutions through the U.S. Department of Education’s HBCU Capital Financing Program. 

For institutions, the debt relief was significant, said Lodriguez Murray, senior vice president of public policy and government affairs at UNCF. HBCUs, like Black people themselves, have a hard time accessing capital, and when they do, it’s often at worse rates than what’s offered to majority-White institutions, he said. 

“After decades of struggles, someone came along and told you that they were going to finish paying off your mortgage,” said Murray. “Imagine the kind of financial relief that that would create for you and those who would accredit you and judge you based on your fiscal solvency.”

But UNCF and HBCUs felt emboldened to ask Congress to relieve that debt because of the racial justice climate during the pandemic, he said. 

Increased financial assistance also came at the state level — including in states with a legacy of underfunding or undermining HBCUs. 

In 2022, six students at Florida A&M University filed a class action lawsuit in federal court alleging the state had historically given more money to traditionally White universities and allowed such institutions to duplicate Florida A&M’s academic programs. The discrepancy continued after 2020, the lawsuit alleged, when the state increased funding for four HBCUs, including an additional $13 million for Bethune-Cookman University. 

In 2021, Maryland passed legislation providing $577 million over a decade to the state’s four HBCUs. That settled a lawsuit filed by a group of graduates in 2006 over allegations the state allowed other state colleges to duplicate popular programs of the Black institutions. And, this year, following decades of documented underinvestment, Tennessee State University received a one-time $250 million allocation from the state government, the largest investment ever made by the state to an HBCU. 

“State legislatures have underfunded them but [HBCUs are] making the case now that they should be well invested in,” said Murray. 

Philanthropic “ripples and waves”

Large donations to HBCUs made by one philanthropist can influence others, according to Murray. That includes both large institutions with name recognition and smaller ones without. 

For instance, the Hastings-Quillin donation influenced the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis to make a $40 million unrestricted endowment to LeMoyne-Owen College just months later, giving the tiny Memphis-based HBCU the largest gift in its history, said Murray. 

The impact from that gift has been “monumental,” said LeMoyne-Owen President Vernell Bennett-Fairs in an email. 

“Having the resources to improve student success through retention and recruitment initiatives that include increased scholarships and other support systems has been greatly appreciated,” Bennett-Fairs said. “This has impacted not only our recruitment but ultimately our graduation rate as well.”

The donations continued for LeMoyne-Owen in 2022, including $1 million from home improvement chain Lowe’s that covered scholarships and health and wellness improvements, and $500,000 from supermarket chain Kroger that financed full scholarships for five local students, she said. 

The Hastings-Quillin gift exemplified how equity-focused philanthropy that goes to “those that deserve and need the most help can make ripples and waves throughout the philanthropic community,” said Murray. In turn, such donations can give HBCUs “a new lease on life,” he said.

The impact of the funding

Campus leaders have leveraged philanthropic funds to build new programs, scale effective initiatives and increase the bottom lines of their universities, according to Strayhorn. 

A donation like the one LeMoyne-Owen received, for example, can support critical operations and needs and can also help chip away at an institution’s dependency on tuition, said Pierce. “When you get that type of infusion, they are able to develop more efficient processes, and my understanding is many of those institutions were able to do just that,” he said. 

HBCUs often used the federal pandemic relief funding they received to relieve student debt and fees, such as graduation and senior fees, making it easier for students to graduate debt free, Murray said. 

The new sources of funding have also allowed some HBCUs to take on major projects and initiatives. 

Morgan State University, in Maryland, used some of its new funding to create a community health center studying health inequality in Baltimore and nearby areas, said Strayhorn. Dillard University, in Louisiana, he said, used part of a large gift to launch a new branding campaign and competitive scholarship program. And Norfolk State University used philanthropic funds to support students, faculty development and innovation, he said. 

Several HBCUs, such as Prairie View A&M and Virginia Union, put recent philanthropic support and corporate gifts toward emergency assistance programs, completion grants, and new programs in STEM, entrepreneurship and health policy, Strayhorn said.

And some HBCUs used philanthropic gifts to accelerate online learning platforms, purchase laptops and hotspots for students during the pandemic, and boost their endowments, he added. 

The donations have helped UNCF work with its member institutions on setting them up for long-term solvency, according to Murray. 

“We’ve been working on the transformative nature of how HBCUs will offer this education, not just now but in the future,” he said. “I think that over the next decades, you’re going to see the strength of that work that we’re doing now.”

More is still needed

Still, despite the outpouring of financial support for HBCUs, more is needed — both from the federal and state governments and from philanthropists, said Murray. 

“Two or three years of strong funding does not make up for centuries of underfunding. We still need much more in terms of the donations and the governmental support to get to where we have always been trying to go, which is excellence.”

Lodriguez Murray

Senior Vice President of Public Policy and Government Affairs at UNCF

HBCUs, Strayhorn said, need routine sustained capital and investments from a range of groups — such as banks, philanthropies, community development corporations, and high-dollar investors — who support their mission and understand their students, stories and values. 

LeMoyne-Owen, for example, still needs more federal funding to expand its footprint, Bennett-Fairs said. Outside of a residence hall that opened in 2013, the college has not had a major construction project in 40 years. 

“We would like to build a new gym with a health and wellness center, additional classrooms, and large multipurpose spaces,” he said. “We need space to grow as we expand our offerings on campus.”

Some of the funding institutions have received have helped HBCUs address their sizable capital repair backlogs. However, a lot of those funding sources have specific requirements for their use, said Murray.

Spelman needs more funding to “continue to reduce the financial burden on our students to get to a point where we can be a need-blind institution,” said Dawn Alston, Spelman’s vice president for business and financial affairs and chief financial officer, in an email. The college also needs more resources to recruit and retain faculty, enhance and introduce new academic programs, and support infrastructure and capital projects. 

The funding received in the last few years has allowed Spelman to reduce its tuition rates to 2017- 2018 levels, said Alston. However, the college faces continued financial pressures as inflation for its expenses outpaces earnings increases for its target demographic. Additional funds would allow the college to support programming and initiatives to make it more affordable, said Alston. 

The funding gap between HBCUs and predominantly White institutions “remains and looms relatively large, despite these historic gifts,” said Strayhorn. And Pierce fears that the window of philanthropic donations following the outcry over George Floyd’s murder has closed slightly. 

Black colleges and universities have been underfunded for over 150 years, said Murray.

“Two or three years of strong funding does not make up for centuries of underfunding,” he said. “We still need much more in terms of the donations and the governmental support to get to where we have always been trying to go, which is excellence.”