Spelman College president: Here’s the case for investing more in HBCUs

The president of Spelman College says most of a historic $100 million donation will fund scholarships for students. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

The president of Spelman College says most of a historic $100 million donation will fund scholarships for students. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

It was an honor to recently announce Spelman College as the recipient of a historic $100 million donation from philanthropist, businesswoman and longtime Spelman trustee Ronda Stryker and her husband William Johnston. This gift is not only the largest in our history, it’s the largest individual donation ever given to a historically Black college or university and larger than many gifts to higher educational institutions.

Since the announcement, so many people have reached out expressing a sense of pride about their own contributions to Spelman and the need for deeper conversations on the value of investing in HBCUs. These conversations are critical to support our students — students who are excited to be part of Spelman’s fabric.

Dr. Helene Gayle

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

In fact, in the last year alone, we’ve seen an uptick in new student applications — up 13% year over year. It’s no surprise that college affordability is one of our highest priorities. So, we are elated that most of the donation will go to endow scholarships for Spelman students.

About 44% of Spelman students qualify for PELL grants — federal aid awarded to undergraduates who have high financial need. Nearly 80% of all Spelman students receive some type of financial support.

Spelman students are not alone. At other HBCUs in Atlanta and throughout the country, more students rely on financial aid to fund their college education, which can make obtaining a college degree challenging because of the lack of financial resources.

This means many students from HBCUs and students of color in general end up with substantial debt upon completing their education or, even worse, amass major debt without being able to complete their degree. The generosity of donors, including alumnae, is one of many ways that we can help HBCUs provide more financial support to students in need.

According to the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), the median endowment for its member HBCUs is $15.9 million, compared to non-HBCUs, whose average endowment is $36.7 million. Recent investments like those from Ms. Stryker and Mr. Johnston and the Lily Endowment’s unrestricted gift to UNCF are helping us make considerable progress on this front.

The impact of Atlanta HBCUs goes far beyond our campus gates, helping address broader social issues and disparities within our communities where higher rates of poverty, infrastructure challenges and unemployment limit socioeconomic mobility. Like investing in anchor institutions like hospitals, sports franchises and military installations, investing in HBCUs not only fosters educational equity but also stimulates local economies, creating small ripple effects of prosperity.

HBCUs also draw down federal and state dollars for expanded or enhanced degree programs, infrastructure improvements and research projects. For example, the Center for Black Entrepreneurship, a joint initiative between Spelman, Morehouse College and the Black Economic Alliance, recently received a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce to support early-stage Black founders in metro Atlanta. Spelman received a $14 million National Science Foundation grant on behalf of the Atlanta University Consortium that includes Morehouse College, Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse School of Medicine to build research capacity across the AUC.

We also work in other ways to strengthen our support for the local community, addressing community challenges through student service projects, faculty and student research and experiential learning opportunities. Among the initiatives is SpelREADS in which volunteer student tutors from Spelman work one-on-one with local school children to strengthen reading skills.

While addressing societal challenges requires collaboration with local governments and community organizations, the resources that flow from our HBCUs increase our neighborhood’s access to education, cultural resources, critical broadband technology, transportation and so much more.

At Spelman, we have felt uplifted and inspired by the generosity of our donors and the message it sends to our students and community. This moment underscores the value of investing in all HBCUs and is a critical step toward bridging the endowment divide so we’re able to continue strengthening our communities and helping more students pursue college degrees. We hope this gift will inspire others to consider the incredible return on investing in HBCUs.

Dr. Helene D. Gayle is president of Spelman College.