What’s next for HBCUs?

The United Negro College Fund’s Nadrea R. Njoku talks about growing public support, best practices, and unprecedented collaboration

What's next for HBCUs?
Nadrea R. Njoku

Photograph by Jamila Lisbon

Leading with his signature baritone, Lou Rawls was able to catapult the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) and its iconic motto, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” into the cultural zeitgeist of the ’80s and ’90s with his annual telethon. The entertainer helped raise more than $200 million for the nonprofit, which was cofounded in 1944 by Mary McLeod Bethune, a highly influential civil and women’s rights leader and government official, along with educator Dr. Frederick D. Patterson, the third president of Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). Its aim was “to help private Black colleges become financially sound.” One of its first supporters was businessman and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr., who gave $25,000 to UNCF, in addition to recruiting donations from other businessmen and philanthropists. Supporting 37 HBCUs with various initiatives and signature events such as the Mayor’s Masked Ball Atlanta, UNCF has raised more than $5 billion, enabling more than 500,000 students to graduate from college since its creation.

In 1996, in honor of its cofounder, UNCF created the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute to “conduct and disseminate research that informs policymakers, educators, philanthropists, and the general public on how to best improve educational opportunities and outcomes for African Americans and other underrepresented minorities across the pre-school-through-college-graduation pipeline.” According to the institute, 80 percent of Black judges, 50 percent of Black doctors, and 50 percent of Black lawyers graduated from HBCUs. Closer to home, Georgia’s nine UNCF HBCUs have generated 12,040 jobs for the local and regional economy, amounting to $1.3 billion in total economic impact.

Atlanta magazine spoke with Dr. Nadrea R. Njoku, director of the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute, about the UNCF and the future of HBCUs.

What is the primary goal of your institute?
The thing that I always like to keep central is making sure that UNCF and our institutions have real data, quantitatively and qualitatively, to support the anecdotal stories we have about the HBCU tradition and its value proposition. We’ve done that with Opportunity Insights out of Harvard, where we built out a report on the socioeconomic mobility of HBCU graduates. And we’ve partnered with organizations such as the Selig Center at the University of Georgia, where we looked at the material economic impact institutions are having on the lifetime earnings of graduates from our institutions.

The institute’s “HBCUs Transforming Generations: Social Mobility Outcomes for HBCU Alumni” report has received notable media attention.
So that was the partnership we had with Harvard Opportunity Insights. We used their data on social mobility to talk about how our institutions move students from one socioeconomic quintile to the next. Our students will go from the lowest quintile to the top 20 or 30, but we’re also creating the “Mighty Middle.” You’re seeing generations have material movement across quintiles. When you’re comparing HBCU graduates to students who did not graduate from an HBCU, HBCU students are 51 percent more likely to move into higher quintiles.

How is the role of HBCUs changing, or is it?
I think our primary mission remains the same: to continue to give access to postsecondary education to historically minoritized students. Historically Black colleges and universities have definitely done that with regard to African Americans, our primary population, but we’ve never turned any student population away. So [other] historically minoritized students also find a soft place to land in our institutions.

I think what has really changed for me is our ability to tell our own story. For far too long, we went about this work focused on just the student audience and not publicizing the work we were doing. Far too often, other institutions get credit for best practices we started and innovated after they observed us and took those services and practices to PWIs. For instance, intrusive advising. At the Atlanta University Center, students are partnered with an adviser from the moment they step on campus, and that adviser follows them through the end of their time at the institution. Now Georgia State is well known for their intrusive advisory model. But intrusive advising, along with similar course mapping and “15 to Finish” models, are all practices that were centralized and innovated at HBCUs.

HBCUs are underfunded in comparison to PWIs. But earlier this year, UNCF received its largest philanthropic corporate gift to date, $190 million from Fidelity Investments, to launch the Fidelity Scholars program. What other large investments has UNCF received recently?
The Fidelity program helps the Mighty Middle, students who don’t get access to the most competitive scholarships because of their GPAs. That is the largest donation we have to date, but we’re consistently building partnerships. So, for instance, Patty Quillin and Reed Hastings gave $40 million to Spelman College, $40 million to Morehouse College, and $40 [million] to UNCF in 2020. MacKenzie Scott also donated millions to several of our schools.

As we exited the pandemic—and with the tragic killing of George Floyd and this racial reckoning—I think there were a lot of philanthropic bodies that were trying to turn to the Black community to think about ways that they could have an impact. UNCF was ready and waiting. We’re able to show both a reputation of distribution of scholarships, but also strong programmatic efforts around student professional services, around soft skills, internships and externships, and partnering our students with corporate jobs after graduation. [We are also] making sure that our 37 institutions have the capacity to continue to be healthy institutions. Companies such as Toyota, Best Buy, and Panda Express are also funding scholarships and professional opportunities. In some instances, corporations hope early exposure to their brands will build a pipeline to future jobs.

Talk about how applications are soaring.
Yes, many of our institutions have been seeing record numbers of applications. I think that rise started around 2016 and 2017, when we saw students at predominantly white institutions start to protest against contentious and racialized experiences. Seeing students be more enthusiastic about attending Wiley College, Spelman College, and Dillard University versus Harvard, Yale, or Brown is a manifestation of the work we’re doing.

How are HBCUs collaborating?
In the past, HBCUs have had a reputation for not being good collaborators. I tend to argue that that’s not the case. If you look at consortiums like the Atlanta University Center, that’s an example of continued collaboration on a day-to-day basis. We’re bringing these institutions together in the same space to share what’s happening so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. They’re solving problems by collaborating and sharing practices because they’re seeing some of the same things.

What is the significance of Atlanta’s HBCUs on the national scene?
It goes back to the visibility of the institution. Spelman College continues to be a leader around the level of endowment. Its visibility has increased with celebrity children attending, like Angelina Jolie’s daughter. Erica Campbell, who is a gospel artist, her daughter attends Spelman. The same is the case for Morehouse as well as Clark. But we can’t end this interview without talking about Morris Brown and its tenacity around not giving up its real estate in higher education. There are so many institutions that would have lost their accreditation, seen a significant decrease in their admissions, and given up—the alumni base as well. But that is not the case with Morris Brown. It has regained its accreditation, the alumni continue to be strong, and they’re building an institution that’s serving our city.

This article appears in our October 2023 issue.