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Is Alumni Giving The Cure-All For What’s Ailing HBCUs?

When the Grambling State University football team refused to play this October, the eyes of collegiate sports turned to Louisiana and focused on a long-simmering problem at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs): underfunding.

Marybeth Gasman, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority-Serving Institutions, said in a recent op-ed that solving HBCU’s budgetary woes starts at the top. “Alumni need to be taught how to give and how to be philanthropic,” she wrote. “And this lesson must begin when alumni are students, during the first week of classes, and it needs to come directly from the president.”

One individual who has gotten the memo is Bennett College President Dr. Rosalind Fuse-Hall, who took the helm of her small liberal arts college in Greensboro, N.C., six months ago. She is continuing its momentum and is maintaining an impressive 20% annual contribution rate from graduates, beating out much larger and better known HBUCs such as Howard University.

Bennett College’s model is simple: touting the school’s strengths and aggressively soliciting donors. It isn’t as revolutionary as it is crucial. Funding for HBCUs has declined, while the day-to-day costs to run a university have soared, leading administrators to pursue to alumni giving more aggressively.

Nelson Bowman III, head of development for Texas’ Prairie View A&M University, is taking a different tact. In 2012, his HBCU rolled out a giving campaign for currently enrolled students with inspiring results—60% of freshmen pledged a gift.

“The potential has probably always been there,” Bowman wrote, “but we’ve only viewed them as students, overlooking their innate passion and willingness to engage.”

As the year concludes with a flurry of fund-raising appeals, some HBCUs have improved their pitches and upped their game. Much more than football is at stake.

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