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For my first Easter Sunday in New York, I drove to Queens with my significant other to spend the holiday with a fellow alum from Tennessee State University. She and I met through our alma mater’s local chapter. After eating, laughing and chatting, the women headed to the kitchen to help clean up while the men sat in the other room discussing sports and politics. Ms. Betty graduated from TSU in the ‘60s, and I four decades later. Somehow while washing dishes and scooping out ice cream for dessert the conversation led to HBCUs and alumni giving.

Hearing Ms. Betty and I passionately discuss our beloved HBCU apparently struck a nerve in one of the women. She was a mid-twenty something native New Yorker who attended Stony Brook University. Although she’d never gone to an HBCU, hadn’t done any extensive reading on HBCUs, she had quite a few criticisms not only about HBCUs, but also the students it produced. In an attempt to validate her inaccurate point about HBCU education not being up to par with that of traditionally white institutions, she offered up as evidence that she had seen HBCUs recruit and accept high school students on the spot without them having to take any SATs or ACTs. She babbled on and on about how HBCUs ethnic makeup is not representative of the real world. After she finished I assured her that state schools are state schools regardless if they are HBCUs or TWIs. SAT or ACT scores are a requirement for admission into an accredited college. Further, I reassured her as a graduate of both an HBCU and TWI that I received a top-notch, quality education at my HBCU. Not something I would say about my experience at the TWI I attended.

Ms. Betty interrupted. “Well all I know is I can’t give my money to a school that continuously admits white students and gives them free rides just for being the minority,” she said bluntly. “If they want me to give back they need to find a way to earmark my money only for Black students.”

The woman who I had been debating with earlier took this as her opportunity to keep throwing shade at HBCUs. “Tell me this. Since HBCU graduates are always so passionate about HBCUs being such wonderful institutions, why don’t graduates give back?” she queried. “The bottom line is HBCUs are sinking due to financial strains and the alumni are nowhere to be found.”

People who are typically uninformed about HBCUs, but have righteous and wrong opinions about them and use anecdotal evidence to back up their points, grind my gears. But Miss Stony Brook had a point. One of the toughest problems HBCUs face is getting alumni to give back.

It’s no surprise that alumni giving is significantly lower at HBCUs in comparison to traditionally white institutions. Several studies report alumni giving at HBCUs to be in the single digits. As much as I wanted to come up with a clever retort explaining that perhaps HBCU graduates don’t give back because they are faced with student loan debt — and working minimum wage jobs to survive — I couldn’t ignore that the lack of HBCU alumni donors was a very real issue that needed to be addressed.

In 2010, Blacks had an estimated buying power of $913 billion despite being hit hard by the faltering economy, according to Target Market News. Besides the fact that as a whole Blacks are spending astronomical amounts of money that in turn creates wealth for others while we remain at the bottom of the economic totem pole, very little of those billions went into our own institutions. For colleges and universities facing dire circumstances, alumni giving is a matter of life or death. One thing that must happen is administrators, presidents and faculty must instill the importance in alums giving back from day one. Throughout students’ matriculation the message of having a responsibility to give back once they leave those doors should be ingrained. Just as someone helped them in some capacity along the way, it is their duty to do the same. After all, it is the degree received from an HBCU that opened up career doors.

As far as Ms. Betty’s concerns that her money may not be used for a deserving Black student, I get it. But not giving at all is unacceptable. Money from alumni is used for a number of the school’s needs—infrastructure, technology, scholarships and so on. Not giving at all out of fear the money will be used to fund a minority student’s education only hurts the university. Graduates often cite being treated poorly by a rude employee in the Bursar’s office or some other administrative office as one of the main reasons they don’t give back. We have to move past this if we want to see HBCUs thrive. One or two bad encounters shouldn’t dictate giving back to the school that made sure you walked across the stage degree in hand.

There are only so many Bill Cosby’s and Oprah’s (a TSU grad!) that can donate millions to HBCUs. It can’t all rest on the shoulders of the super rich Black celebs who actually give a damn about Black colleges and universities. If Blacks can’t invest into our own institutions, why should anyone else care? If we truly love HBCUs, alumni, myself included, we should be dedicated in making sure they last another 200 years by giving back with our wallets and talents.


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