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Surge in Economic Dropouts Spurs UNCF Into Emergency Mode

The glaring message atop the Web site says it all: “The recession is hitting UNCF college seniors hard. Hundreds may not graduate this spring.”


“Your contribution can make sure they graduate.”


The urgent appeal from the UNCF (United Negro College Fund), the usually low-key, venerable fundraising machine for 39 of the nation’s private, historically Black colleges and universities, is another example of how the nation’s economic troubles are impacting colleges and their students across the nation.


The UNCF is trying to raise $5 million in quick order to help stem the surge in economic dropouts from member schools as the nation’s economic slump compounds the financial woes of poor minority households and is rapidly reaching deep into middle and higher income homes.


“This is across the board,” says Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the UNCF, explaining that students at large and small, rural and urban schools are being hit hard by the nation’s weak economy. “Family members have become unemployed,” Lomax says. “They (students) have lost their part-time jobs. These are kids who are doing everything right.”


Lomax says the emergency fundraising effort began in early March after a conversation with member presidents in February. The consensus among them was scores of students were being lost from the rolls and the number could quickly grow, absent some turn of events.


Losses in enrollment, the principal source of income for these schools, would further affect the already fragile finances of many member colleges. A quick infusion of money would get hundreds of students across the finish line and shore up institutional finances at a time when all sources of income tuition, investment and gifts are on the decline.


Based on those discussions, Lomax says he made an emergency appeal to his board of directors and ordered his 20 field offices to make an extra effort to raise as much money as they could as quickly as they could that could go directly to member schools to help students at risk of dropping out for economic reasons. Money to the students to pay their debts to the schools would give some immediate relief to the institutions.


In just over a month, the emergency campaign has raised $1.5 million, helped in large part by a $1 million gift from ExxonMobil, half of which the UNCF had to match, Lomax says.


The organization has already distributed $500,000 of the funds to member schools and plans to distribute another $500,000 later this month, Lomax says. The average award per student is about $1,200, he says, depending on the needs of the individual student. Some, he says, have just a few hundred dollars of debt standing between them and graduation.


Schools receiving funds are being told the priority for emergency aid is graduating seniors first, followed by juniors, sophomores and freshmen.


On college campuses throughout the UNCF network, the emergency aid is making a big difference, school officials say.


Tuskegee University in Alabama, for example, received $19,350 of the first distribution of funds. It is using the money to help satisfy the accounts of 36 seniors set to graduate this year. At Spelman College in Atlanta, the UNCF aid helped settle the accounts of eight seniors hoping to graduate this spring. “We have seniors who could use the money,” says Arlene Cash, vice president for enrollment management at Spelman.


Lomax says the organization has a couple of million dollars in requests pending. He is scheduled to be in New York next Monday for an emergency fundraiser at which he hopes to raise half a million dollars.


“By the end of June, we hope to have $3 million to $4 million collected and sent out,” Lomax says, adding he will likely run the emergency campaign through the end of this year, as he sees no quick economic turnaround in sight. “We’re thinking this is going to last for a while.”


In addition to the ExxonMobil aid, the emergency campaign has received $250,000 from its board members and additional corporate support from Procter & Gamble, Altria Group, Inc., Bank of New York Mellon, PepsiCo, Chicago Tribune, BlueCross Blue Shield New England, The Kroger Company, Benjamin Moore Paints and the New York Yankees.

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