By Harry L. Williams, CEO Thurgood Marshall College Fund
One of my main tasks as president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) is to fundraise. As a higher education non-profit we depend on generous donations from corporations and individuals, to help the nearly 300,000 students each year that attend our member-schools, America’s 47 publicly-supported Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Without money, TMCF cannot fulfill our mission.
When I read about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s amazing $1.8-billion-dollar donation to his alma mater Johns Hopkins University, I was excited – but I also was sad. I was excited by his reason for making this donation, explained in his New York Times op-ed: to provide financial aid to low- and moderate-income students. This reason is noble and worth emulating. Mr. Bloomberg reminded the country that lack of funding could prevent well-qualified students from accessing opportunities facilitated by a college degree. College cost and affordability are problems that left unaddressed, will have a damaging impact on the entire nation. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos just gave an eye-opening address about what she described as “a crisis in higher education,” to the annual Federal Student Aid (FSA) Training Conference.
For many African-American students, HBCUs provide a quality education that is both accessible and affordable. Born out of necessity, today’s publicly-supported HBCUs are an attractive option for many students, with a relatively low average tuition ($8,008), smaller class sizes, rich cultural traditions, and an engaged faculty.
Cost is a significant factor in whether students persist in college and graduate. Sallie Mae estimates that the total cost of attending public school for an in-state student is about $25,000 per year (including room and board, books, fees, and tuition). For low-income students, affording tuition alone can be a challenge, as the maximum Pell Grant is $6,095. On average 38% of college students receive Pell Grants recipients, but 72% of TMCF member-school students do – and for some of our schools that number is nearly 90%. Without additional support, many of these students take out student loans and work jobs during school (as Mr. Bloomberg did), and a large number drop out before earning their degrees.
We want all college students to graduate in the black and not in the red, especially those who are the first in their families to attend college. We want college to be a dream come true, not a nightmare. One of the best ways to ensure this vision is to help lower- and moderate-income students avoid student loans – which have an outsized impact on low-income and minority students, who borrow more frequently and at higher amounts than majority students, and have a correlating higher drop-out rate. The facts are for even those minority, and low-income students who earn their degrees carry the burden of these student loans. Beyond repayment obligations, they encounter higher interest rates and more significant obstacles to secure mortgages.
TMCF bridges our scholars’ financial gaps in three ways: creating college affordability through scholarships; training students in leadership development and career readiness, and facilitating professional opportunities for students attending publicly-supported HBCUs through internships and full-time employment after graduation. I love what I do because TMCF’s work helps HBCU students overcome barriers to success. We see the impact during and after our annual Leadership Institute and other TMCF programs throughout the year.
A dollar invested in TMCF goes a long way to help the very students that Mr. Bloomberg is trying to support. Hence, the reason why Mr. Bloomberg’s gift also made me sad. Compare the average undergraduate tuition at a TMCF member-school with Johns Hopkins’ tuition of $53,740. While some may say that students attending costlier schools need more financial support, from my perspective, the choice is between helping one student and helping seven students at a TMCF member school – for the same investment.
If someone wrote TMCF a $1.8 billion check, it would be a game-changer. A billion-dollar gift would be transformative for the black college community and the fantastic students we serve. While TMCF provides over $3.5 million in merit and need-based scholarships to over 600 students each year, we still receive five times as many applications from students requesting assistance. TMCF could provide real economic lifelines to thousands of students attending our schools – more than half of whom are first-generation – so they can continue in their studies, earn their degrees and enter economically sustainable careers.
I am confident others will follow in Mayor Bloomberg’s footsteps and make transformative gifts to support Pell-eligible HBCU students. Last year, a kind-hearted man unconnected to the HBCU community passed away. His last wish was for those he left behind to make donations to TMCF. We received small checks for several weeks after he died. That was an exceptional tribute. Small donors are just as crucial to TMCF as our larger supporters. Yet a leadership gift in the magnitude of Mr. Bloomberg’s would allow TMCF to help more students each year in perpetuity.
As a first-generation college student and former HBCU president, I know the importance of turning gifts into opportunity. I have seen the impact an HBCU education makes for students from fragile communities. Mayor Bloomberg’s personal story demonstrates that regardless of one’s background, education can transform one’s future. I hear this story repeated daily by HBCU students. I would be happy to share those stories directly with Mayor Bloomberg or anyone interested in supporting such students – to describe the impact they can have by investing in the black college community through TMCF, making education pay off one scholar at a time.
Dr. Harry L. Williams is the President & CEO of Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), the largest organization exclusively representing the Black College Community. Prior to joining TMCF, he spent eight years as president of Delaware State University. Follow him on Twitter at @DrHLWilliams.