Why This Major Antipoverty Funder Is Ramping Up Its Investment in HBCUs

Jubilee Hall at Fisk University. photo: KennStilger47/shutterstock

Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have drawn increasing recognition and support from philanthropy in recent years. In 2021, IP’s Mike Scutari spotlighted a long list of funders investing in HBCUs, and Ade Adeniji recently reported on the Black donors who are making the schools a funding priority. MacKenzie Scott has also included a large number of HBCUs in her torrent of funding over the last several years. 

This comes at a time when some Black students are choosing to attend HBCUs while turning down admission offers from some of the most prestigious colleges in the country. The New York Times highlighted this trend last year, pointing to an enrollment boom at HBCUs even as other colleges around the country experience steep enrollment declines

Today, Blue Meridian Partners announced a major $124 million investment in the HBCU Transformation Project, which aims to strengthen HBCUs so they can effectively meet student needs and respond to rising enrollment demands — a trend many experts expect will increase in the wake of the recent Supreme Court ruling banning race-based admission practices (IP reported on some of the wealthy donors behind that decision). 

The HBCU Transformation Project was created in 2022 by UNCF (United Negro College Fund), Thurgood Marshall College Fund and Partnership for Education Advancement. Blue Meridian Partners invested $60 million at the time to help launch the project and provide strategic counsel. In 2020, before the HBCU Transformation Project was created, Blue Meridian also provided $15 million in emergency COVID relief funding to HBCUs through the same three organizations.

Now, a year on, the high-dollar funding collaborative — which draws support from some of the biggest philanthropists in the country — is so impressed by the HBCU Transformation Project’s work that it tripled its commitment. “For more than a century, HBCUs have been vital engines for economic and social mobility in the United States. That essential fact, coupled with the HBCU Transformation Project’s record of achievement, justifies additional support,” said Jim Shelton, Blue Meridian Partners’ president and chief investment and impact officer, when the latest round of funding was announced. “With this latest investment, we hope to accelerate the pace of change and strengthen these vital institutions and the students they serve at scale.”

Engines of mobility, sources of leadership

Rising philanthropic support for HBCUs from Blue Meridian Partners, MacKenzie Scott and others marks a significant shift, according to “Philanthropy and HBCUs,” a report released this summer by Candid and ABFE. The report found, for example, that large U.S. foundations actually decreased their funding for HBCUs between 2002 and 2019. From 2015 to 2019, Ivy League institutions received 178 times more funding from foundations than HBCUs did. The report also concluded that “HBCU endowments lag behind those of non-HBCU institutions by at least 70%.” It’s worth highlighting that in 2020, the endowments of all the HBCUs combined equaled just 11% of Harvard’s endowment that year, according to analysis by The Plug.

Despite this shortage of resources, HBCUs have played an outsized role in the education of Black Americans — and in U.S. history. Eighty percent of Black doctors and dentists and 50% of Black school teachers were HBCU students. Forty percent of Black members of Congress graduated from HBCUs, as did civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Stokely Carmichael, Medger Evers and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. The list of luminaries goes on: Toni Morrison, Oprah Winfrey and Spike Lee all attended HBCUs. And HBCUs generate $14.8 billion “in direct economic impact in their local communities,” according to the HBCU Transformation Project.

HBCUs have accomplished all this while also enrolling close to twice the percentage of low-income students as their non-HBCU counterparts. According to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, “More than 75% of students at HBCUs rely on Pell Grants and nearly 13% rely on PLUS Loans to meet their college expenses.” 

A good fit

HBCUs and the HBCU Transformation Project are a good fit for Blue Meridian Partners, which “seeks to transform the life trajectories of young people and families in poverty.”

“[Blue Meridian Partners’] primary mission is finding scalable solutions that promote economic and social mobility; that's the core of our work,” said Nicholas Pelzer, senior director, portfolio, at Blue Meridian Partners. “Several years ago, we were going through a planning process, and we spent a lot of time probing what is the most efficient way to increase socioeconomic mobility. And HBCUs, frankly, rose on the list as one of the top answers, because all the data shows that they've been engines for Black economic mobility and sources of Black leadership.”

Now one of the nation’s heftiest philanthropic funders of antipoverty work, Blue Meridian Partners was incubated at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in 2016, as IP reported at the time, but is now a standalone organization. The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation remains a partner, but Blue Meridian has also attracted a long list of big-name funders including the Ballmer Group, the Duke Endowment, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, MacKenzie Scott and others (learn more about Blue Meridian’s funders in this IP report).

Blue Meridian Partners makes large — $100 million or more — long-term investments in organizations that work to provide solutions for thorny issues including youth unemployment, teen pregnancy, flaws in the foster care system, and lack of support for families with very young children. Its Justice and Mobility Fund supports criminal justice reform and works to “improve the life trajectories of people impacted by the criminal justice system.” As IP’s Martha Ramirez has reported, Blue Meridian has also supported students in rural America, among other investments. 

Other funders that have backed the HBCU Transformation Project include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, JPMorgan Chase, Capital One, Walmart Foundation, Macquarie Foundation, Strada Education Network and the ECMC Foundation. 

Pelzer hopes more funders will step up. “I think that philanthropy can and should do more to support HBCUs,” he said. “Blue Meridian is really glad to be at the forefront of those types of investments, and our investors are eager to contribute. They want to do this because they are seeing positive results. We have a great start, but we're hoping that others will join us — individuals and foundations — because we need more voices around the table to make a real impact. We always welcome more partners; it's in our name, after all.”

Part of the family 

It’s still too early to assess the long-term impact of the Supreme Court ban on affirmative action in college admissions. Still, there is evidence, which the conservative majority on the court chose to disregard, that scrapping race-based admissions practices results in less-diverse college communities. (Officials at Amherst College estimated that “going entirely race-neutral would reduce Black, Hispanic and Indigenous populations by half,” according to an AP report.) It also seems likely that the ruling will make elite college campuses less attractive to students of color and increase the draw of HBCUs.  

Given the current climate, this seems like a good time for funders interested in equity in higher ed — including the big donors backing Blue Meridian — to examine the ways philanthropy has been complicit in an elite education landscape skewed toward the wealthy and the white. A longtime failure to adequately support HBCUs and other institutions that enroll large numbers of students of color is one part of the picture. Another is the tendency among many major donors to inflate the already swollen endowments of elite schools, underwrite questionable capital projects on campus, and otherwise shy away from philanthropic interventions — like more financial aid and scholarship funding — that would make it easier for students of color and low-income students to attend.

Meanwhile, many students consider HBCUs an increasingly compelling option. “While no one knows what the exact impact [of the Supreme Court ruling] is going to be, we believe that more students are going to take a look at HBCUs,” Pelzer said. “For one thing, opportunities at predominantly white schools that were available to students before may not be as available going forward. At the same time, HBCUs are starting to get the recognition they’ve long deserved, and more students are checking them out. So when you see one door closing and you're looking for a place that feels warm and supportive, coming to a place that was actually designed to make you feel supported and to give you the educational opportunities that are denied in other places — a lot of students are going to make that choice.”

Even before the Supreme Court decision, Gabrielle Armstrong made that choice. The Durham, North Carolina, student had always dreamed of going to nearby Duke, but ultimately decided to apply to — and attend — an HBCU instead.  “I figured I have the rest of my life to be treated like a minority, to fight to be seen as human,” Armstrong told the New York Times. “I might as well spend four years being seen as family.”