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Hill Harper Encourages Financial Fitness Among HBCU Students

The critically acclaimed actor and New York Times best-selling author, Hill Harper worked tirelessly to advance the cause of change for his friend and former classmate, President-elect Barack Obama.

Now that the general election is over, Harper is embarking on a new campaign that will inspire minority youth to become financially fit and economically empowered.

Saturday, Harper visited Paul Quinn College in Dallas to talk money with local high school and college students. Paul Quinn College was the third official stop of a 14-city tour hosted by the United Negro College Fund, in partnership with the Wachovia Foundation and Harper’s Manifest Your Destiny Foundation entitled the “HBCU Empower Me Tour.”

Harper spoke with Diverse in an exclusive interview prior to his appearance at Paul Quinn.

“We have not developed a great deal of financial literacy within our communities and families,” Harper told Diverse. “Most young people think of money as an end result, rather than what it really is: a life tool.”

Money, like education, is only the vehicle, Harper explained, not the destination.

Launched in September, the “HBCU Empower Me Tour” aims to motivate minority youth to attain sound financial knowledge and chart strong financial destinies.

As part of its ambition, the tour also seeks to encourage students on Black college campuses to persevere in getting their college degree.

Data show that HBCUs enroll nearly 20 percent of Black undergraduate students. The aggregate six-year graduation rate for HBCUs in 2006 was 37.9 percent compared to 45 percent for traditionally-White institutions, according to a recent report released by Education Sector, an independent think tank.

“The number one reason why students do not complete their college educations after starting is due to financial inadequacies. Many of our students come from low- to moderate-income families. They have to make very challenging financial decisions. We want them to make the right decisions so they can move from a position of powerlessness to ‘empoweredness,’” says Dr. Michael Lomax, president and CEO of UNCF and former president of Dillard University in New Orleans.

Named by People magazine as one of the “Sexiest Men Alive,” Harper serves as the tour’s spokesman. “We have failed in many ways within our community with cross-generational wealth building,” Harper said resolutely. “Look at the issues we face in our community. Many can be traced back to wealth. Two-thirds of our people are being raised by single mothers who have to work two jobs to make ends meet. She is not building wealth. She is keeping her head above water.”

Harper added, “Couples build more wealth than single parents. If you poll couples, the number one thing that pulls couples apart is money. It’s not about money for money’s sake. It’s about [how money impacts] relationships, families and education.”

The tour brought five hours of activity to Paul Quinn College. Students spoke directly with college and corporate recruiters in an area dubbed the “Tour Zone” and attended workshops geared toward saving and investing.

No stranger to financial challenges, Paul Quinn, one of the oldest historically Black colleges in Texas, was heartened by the efforts of Harper and UNCF to empower its students financially. Paul Quinn made a few difficult financial decisions of its own last year when the newly appointed college president Michael Sorrell decided to cut the college’s football program, saving nearly $600,000 a year, and eliminate anemic academic programs to create more resources for existing ones.

Harper, who is best known as Dr. Sheldon Hawkes on the television show CSI: NY, and for his wildly successful book, Letters to a Young Brother, sat on the National Finance Committee for the Obama campaign. And while many are aware of Harper’s celebrity, few are familiar with his educational achievements.

A graduate of Brown University and Harvard Law School, where he was classmates with Obama, Harper’s academic achievements are the cornerstones of his success, he said. Motivating others, particularly Black men, to realize their full educational potential is at the forefront of Harper’s own personal message of manifesting your own destiny, which is also the subtitle of his book.

“Many of the most successful, well-educated, well-read men sort of disappear. They live their lives in way that is great, but they are not being seen,” Harper said. “Those of us [men] who are doing well have to represent that [success].

“That is why I’m out in the public,” he continued. “Our young people see others who more visible: T.I.P or Hova. In our music and in our pop culture journey isn’t celebrated. People want to have the monikers of greatness, as if you’ve been ordained to greatness. What is not talked about is journey, how tremendously hard those people work to achieve their success. Our young people do not realize that there is a journey involved.”

Harper’s journey has brought him to the nation’s HBCUs, a coalition of public and private institutions that disproportionately serve Black college students.

“HBCUs fulfill an incredible need,” he said. “That’s why they need to be supported. It’s not like other universities where they have four years to give folks a college education. Many HBCUs have to spend at least two years, making up for the failures of our public school system.

“Next, they have to try and cram four years of college training into the last two years,” Harper said. “Our HBCUs are doing double duty. I’m so proud of the work they are doing. It’s important to me to support them.” 

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