Colleges describe ‘transformational’ impact of unrestricted gifts from MacKenzie Scott

Several months after receiving multimillion dollar gifts from billionaire philanthropist and author MacKenzie Scott, colleges and universities “say the unrestricted funds are helping them dream big,” Higher Ed Dive reports. 

More than $800 million of the $4.2 billion Scott donated in the last four months of 2020 was directed toward higher education. Twenty-two of the 42 colleges that received gifts from Scott are historically Black institutions, and at least a dozen are tribal colleges or Hispanic-serving institutions. Nearly all are under-resourced institutions that typically would not have access to such large philanthropic gifts, which ranged in size from $1 million to $50 million.

Related: Regional, minority-serving institutions receive $800+ million infusion from MacKenzie Scott

Unrestricted funds ‘an anomaly’ 

Scott’s donations were especially notable in that they were not limited to a particular use. According to the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), unrestricted gifts made up less than one in 15 philanthropic gifts made to colleges in fiscal year 2020. “Scott’s gifts are certainly an anomaly compared to the typical way that institutions receive transformational gifts,” Brian Flahaven, CASE’s vice president of strategic partnerships, told Higher Ed Dive

While many of the recipient colleges are still finalizing how they will allocate the funds, a number have said the gifts are “transformational” and will allow their under-resourced institutions to make rapid progress toward strategic goals.    

Bolstering financial aid

Alleviating financial hurdles for students is a top priority for many of the colleges and universities, especially as the pandemic further strains families’ finances. Dr. Aminta Breaux, president of Bowie State University (BSU) in Maryland, says that, with its $25 million gift from Scott, BSU is “making sure that we are, first and foremost, providing scholarship dollars for our students.”  

Dr. Ruth Simmons, president of Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU), echoes that priority, noting that the university’s “students have faced job loss, a range of insecurities, family needs, academic challenges due to online instruction, and other problems that often seem impossible to overcome.” PVAMU, a public, historically black, land-grant university, received $50 million—the largest of Scott’s gifts to HBCUs—and Simmons says the school wanted “to make certain that students didn’t opt to discontinue their education because of the financial strain they are under.”

Ensuring ongoing stability

Breaux and Simmons both say the investment in their institutions will provide much-needed lasting financial stability and flexibility. HBCUs, especially, tend to have smaller endowments than other institutions, and “when they get into financial trouble they don’t have something on which to fall back,” says Dr. Belle S. Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. 

“Endowments,” Simmons notes, “provide considerable flexibility for universities to innovate and to move expeditiously to implement change.” Scott’s gift will enable PVAMU to grow its endowment by nearly 40 percent to $130 million. 

BSU also will put most of Scott’s gift toward its endowment, Breaux says. “When I talk about boilers and chillers, it’s difficult to ask someone to help support those types of initiatives,” she said. “This allows us to take care of some of those [projects] that we otherwise would not have the funding, nor would you be able to get support for” while “enabling investment in student financial support, advances in academic excellence and innovation, and substantial increases in the university endowment.”

Building awareness, raising profiles to inspire future philanthropy 

Texas-based Palo Alto College, meanwhile, plans to use the $20 million it received to increase awareness of the community college, build a college-going culture locally, and grow dual-credit opportunities for high school students. “Those things require resources,” Palo Alto President Robert Garza, said, adding that the gift—its largest one-time donation in the institution’s history—”really opened the doors for a larger-scale start.”

Calling Scott’s $40 million gift to Morgan State University in Baltimore a “game-changer” for the HBCU, President David K. Wilson told Diverse Issues in Higher Education that the Research 2 institution will use its funds to realize a longstanding goal of attaining Research 1 status. “We’re not in a spending mode,” he said. “We’re in an investing-for-the future mode.”

Higher ed leaders also say they hope that the impact of Scott’s gifts will inspire similarly large unrestricted gifts to underserved institutions. “As the donor made very clear, this is to be seen as the impetus for others to give,” Breaux said. “It was not intended to be the be-all and end-all.”

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