‘Put the money to good use’: Revisiting MacKenzie Scott’s transformative unrestricted gifts to HBCUs

More than a year after MacKenzie Scott donated $560 million in unrestricted funds to 23 public and private historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), The Chronicle of Higher Education describes how these funds have added resilience to minority-serving institutions confronting existential threats, including underfunding, restrictive funding, and even bomb threats

Unrestricted donations redressing a long history of wrongs

The financial stability of public and private HBCUs has often relied on corporate donations “with overly specific conditions,” Bloomberg reports. Compared with predominantly white institutions, HBCUs have been more likely to receive “very limited, short-term gift[s] with all kinds of restrictions…tantamount to continuing a tradition of mistreatment for African American institutions,” explained Ruth Simmons, President of Prairie View A&M University, which received the largest donation Scott gave to HBCUs. 

Meanwhile, a Forbes analysis of per-student funding shows that public HBCUs have been underfunded by at least $12.8 billion over the last three decades compared to their predominantly white counterparts. The largest HBCU in the nation, North Carolina A&T State University, has been underfunded by an inflation-adjusted total of $2.8 billion since 1987. During that time frame, Prairie View A&M University received $1 billion less than it would have if the Texas government funded it equivalently to the state’s predominantly white land-grant schools. 

Some HBCUs have weathered prolonged legal battles to narrow the funding gap. Three Mississippi public HBCUs won $500 million in 2002 at the end of a 27-year lawsuit against the state. In 2021, Maryland’s four HBCUs also won a $577 million settlement after a 15-year-long federal lawsuit.

Related: Scott’s latest gifts buoy colleges educating chronically underserved communities

Building stronger foundations for the future

The millions directed to HBCUs by Scott, on the other hand, came rapidly, unexpectedly, and with no strings attached. “How these colleges have used the money reveals what happens when chronically underfunded institutions get access to large unrestricted gifts,” the Chronicle writes, noting that almost universally, recipients said they would bolster need-based scholarships for students. 

Xavier University of Louisiana, for instance, was able to give 60 students $3,000 each in need-based scholarships. “People don’t realize how little things like this impact people and allow them to continue their passion or give back to the world or just do the things that they want without the pressure of money,” Madison Byrdie, a student who was on the cusp of dropping out until she received that aid, told the Chronicle.  

With Scott’s unrestricted donations, underfunded HBCUs like Xavier have bolstered their academic programs, hired more faculty and staff, given more scholarships to incoming students, and invested in STEM and humanities programs. 

That flexibility was intentional. “Because we believe that teams with experience on the front lines of challenges will know how to put the money to good use, we encouraged them to spend it however they choose,” Scott wrote on Medium

The following universities have revealed how transformative Scott’s donations have been for their students, faculty, and communities, offering a snapshot of the philanthropy’s impact:

  • North Carolina A&T State University, which received $45 million, has created full-tuition scholarships that will be given to 15 freshmen each year, raised employee salaries for the first time in four years, and established for the first time a faculty sabbatical program that allows two tenured professors per year to take paid time off to engage in teaching, research, and service projects. 
  • Xavier University of Louisiana received $20 million and used $15 million of that to expand the university’s need-based scholarship fund. The university also added $1 million to its Pipeline Endowment for pre-collegiate students in summer and STEM-related academic programs. 
  • Texas’s Prairie View A&M University, which received $50 million, has directed $10 million to its Panther Success Grant, a program that provides additional funding to juniors and seniors as they move toward graduation. In addition to setting a goal to fill 23 new tenure-track faculty positions and to create writing and reading programs that partner the university with local elementary and high schools, Prairie View plans to use $10 million toward college outreach programs for high school students.
  • Voorhees College in South Carolina used a portion of its $4 million to reinstate health care benefits for employees, which were canceled in 2015 due to high claims costs.
  • Morgan State University in Maryland has endowed new professorships in brain science, psychometrics and predictive analytics, and cybersecurity engineering after receiving $40 million. 

Beyond making these investments possible, Scott’s donations have created momentum for additional fundraising, HBCUs told Inside Higher Ed. Mississippi-based Tougaloo College says it has seen “numerous unexpected by-products from private donors” in the wake of Scott’s donation, including three gifts of $1 million or more.

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