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Our Strength is Internal: The Danger of Relying on New Philanthropic Interest in HBCUs as a Wave for Change

In the last two years, close to some billion dollars in philanthropic gifts have been granted to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) from donors like Makenzie Scott, Patty Quillin and Reed Hastings, Michael Bloomberg, Karsh Foundation, Seth & Beth Klarman, Frank Baker, William F. Pickard and Judson W. Pickard, Jr., and many others. For institutions that have been historically underfunded through federal obligations, this influx of unrestricted funding was a welcome and necessary gift. But our institutional leaders need to be diligent to leverage these funds as vehicles to transport our institutions through a liminal space to shores built by our own ingenuity and intellectual capital.

The episodic nature of recent funding is just that, episodic, given the history of funding allocations to HBCUs from federal and state agencies and philanthropic entities. Prior to 2020, federal research and development obligations to HBCUs were on a decline, having decreased by 15% since 2014. Significant multimillion dollar philanthropic and corporate gifts to HBCUs were less frequent than multimillion dollar gifts to public and private majority serving institutions, and while it is still inequitable there is a wave of recent interest. The nature of these funds can provide support to a component that is not irregular for our HBCUs: their innovation and entrepreneurship that has emerged from its researchers and students. It is no mistake that HBCUs, which represent 3% of all institutions of higher education, contribute 30% of the Black graduates in STEM according to UNCF reporting. Or that an upwards of 40% of all Black full-time faculty and 53% of all Black women who are full-time faculty in the academy have attained their bachelor’s degree from an HBCU. HBCUs are significant contributors to the national STEM and innovation ecosystem through the intellectual capital they cultivate. This is why it is imperative for HBCUs to increase our resource allocation to Research & Development in all forms. Dr. Erin LynchDr. Erin Lynch

In my own research, analysis of IPEDS data suggests there is a stronger correlational relationship between institutional R&D expenditures on student graduation rates than expenditures on instruction. This means the higher our R&D expenditures the stronger our ability to graduate students. And while there may be a number of reasons for this relationship to include how exceptional teaching provides students opportunities to engage in co-curricular activities, or how research engagement allows students to strengthen their academic skills, or how participating in research teams or dyads increases a sense of belonging and community, what is clear is that when HBCUs increase their investments in R&D activities they also directly increase their student graduation rates. As the Hunt Institute reports, 33% of all college students are low-income and first-generation students, but at HBCUs they represent 52% of our student population. HBCUs are remarkable academic institutions for one of the most historically academically vulnerable student populations and are educating with excellence on limited financial resources.

This is why there is a time for mass intentionality in how HBCUs strategically plan the use of their investments to generate more funding. For over 30 years, Quality Education for Minorities (QEM) Network has been dedicated to increasing the capacity of all minority serving institutions to attain R&D resources by supporting faculty and students in their research cultivation endeavors. In this inflection point of a national interest in HBCUs, corporate and philanthropic acknowledgement of their value, and shifts in federal funding availability for HBCUs, we need to rely on the brilliant minds of our faculty and students to contribute to efforts which increase the sponsored program activities at our HBCUs.

In the same way our HBCUs meet our students where they are and invest in them to become exceptional leaders and intellects, our HBCU leaders need to meet our faculty and staff where they are for the sake of increasing research and sponsored programs efforts. In the last year, a number of HBCUs have announced their intention to become the first Research 1 (Highest Research Activity) institution per the Carnegie Classification. But only 10 of the nation’s HBCUs are research-oriented (R2), and only 49% participated in the most recent Higher Education Research and Development reporting through the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, a 14% decrease in participation since 2018. With almost half of our HBCUs reporting R&D activities, there is an opportunity for multi-campus consortiums, multi-institutional collaborations, and intentional efforts to use our internal strength as institutions.     

Dr. Erin Lynch is president of Quality Education for Minorities (QEM) Network in Washington, D.C., and associate provost of research at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina. 


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