Should HBCUs teach their students financial literacy and about the business of higher education?

This piece was originally published on Dr. Matthew Lynch’s online publication The Edvocate back in May of 2015. It was entitled Thoughts on Why HBCUs could use more Alumni than Graduates, and Financial Literacy. I decided to republish this story after the new President of my alma mater, Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU), recently visited our Washington DC alumni chapter to discuss his vision for the university which is currently on probation due to financial distress.

A lack of alumni giving has long been a major issue for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Something our new President Clarence Armbrister shared with us that I didn’t know, was that securing funding from Corporate America is difficult if alumni aren’t already giving significantly. Donors in fact inquire about alumni giving when deciding to give money themselves confounding the problem.

What’s at the heart of this conundrum? I think a major piece is that the concepts of wealth-building aren’t passed on in the ecosystems many HBCU students come from. When I say ‘ecosystems’ in this context, I’m referring to the environment the students have come from prior to matriculating into their particular schools – their home, their social circles, their church and the school system they’ve come from – in some instances where the goal is simply survival.

Coincidentally when you start studying money, a common theme you see is the importance of giving. Since many of these students are not receiving this information from wherever they come from, perhaps our HBCUs should consider planting these seeds in their student’s minds before they graduate – weaving it into their curricula somehow. After all, higher education is actually a business, and it isn’t free as someone somewhere has to pay for it.

In a previous post regarding the Tax Reform and Jobs Act, I discussed my alma mater being on probation, and challenged other HBCU alums to take some of the money they’ve received from their tax break and passing it on their alma maters – something which may have upset some readers. In this piece, I suggest that the HBCUs themselves should proactively arm their students with information which will not only empower them during their working lives, but also compel them to give support back to the places which gave them their start, allowing other kids to have similar opportunities.

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Being highly involved in the Washington DC Alumni Chapter for Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU), I’ve become keenly aware of the issues facing Historically Black Colleges and University (HBCUs). As an education advocate and writer, I’ve helped promote the “Quotes for Education” collaboration between Allstate and the Tom Joyner Foundation the last two years. In numerous interviews with Allstate’s Senior Vice-President and Florida A&M University alumnus Cheryl Harris, the importance of HBCU alumni giving back to their alma maters was stressed. In addition to the other pressures these institutions are facing, one of the more significant problems is the lack of alumni giving.

At an Executive Board meeting, our Chapter President Robert Ridley shared with us an idea he read stating that, “A graduate is someone who gets a degree from an institution and never looks back. An alumnus is someone who gives their time and money back to their alma mater.” This was an important distinction that I’d never heard before, not even when I was a student at JCSU. It’s an important concept that arguably should be introduced from day one at our HBCUs.

Why is it important for graduates to give back to their alma maters? The main reason is to give future generations a fighting chance to succeed. This is particularly important for Black America. Secondly, institutions of higher learning rely on state, federal and extramural funding from private donors. Many HBCU’s are “Land Grant” institutions and their funding has been decreased ironically under the Obama Administration, in addition to the tightening of the borrowing criteria for the “Parent Plus Loans” which many HBCU students and families heavily relied upon.  Thus donations from alumni have become more important.

As unofficially told by an insider, for the 2014 fiscal year, less than 14% of my class of 1999 gave anything back to JCSU, a staggeringly low number. When our school President Dr. Ronald Carter gave an overview of the current health of the University here in Washington, DC, he cited low alumni giving as one potential threat to the University’s future. A key piece of that evening was encouraging alumni to consider cutting back on certain luxuries to free up money to give back.

Why don’t HBCU Alums give more to their alma maters? Why would only 14% of my class give back to the University? One reason is that many students who’ve attended HBCUs feel as though they’ve given enough of their money to their alma mater when pursuing their educations, and don’t feel inclined to give anything else after graduating. Another reason is hard feelings towards one’s alma mater. Many graduates feel bitter about their experience for one reason or the other as well. I’ve heard this personally and read about it in other articles.

Another piece to this puzzle though is socioeconomic. Of the many curses to being born black in the United States, a key one is starting from lower rungs on the economic ladder than our counterparts of other ethnicities. If for example, your parents planned ahead and saved a college fund for you, your economic burden will likely be lessened or non-existent upon graduation as discussed by Georgette Miller, Esq. in Living Debt Free. You’ll have less debt and more disposable income (some to donate) after starting your career.

“They just weren’t thinking that way,” my father said in a discussion about my grandparents in a discussion about mortgages. I stumbled upon the basics of financial literacy by accident (from books like Rich Dad Poor Dad and The Millionaire Next Door), and wondered why my parents didn’t teach me more about the vital knowledge shared in these books. They didn’t know themselves and I think this is true for a lot of African American families in the United States.

Likewise, I hypothesize that many other college graduates from my community have a low level of financial literacy and that in part drives this lack of giving that we see from alumni towards their HBCUs. In other words, they know how to lavishly spend it, but not how to gradually save and grow it. If my hypothesis is true and many students are matriculating into our HBCUs with a low level of financial literacy, HBCU’s may do good to start educating their students on these topics from day one and also stressing that higher education is in fact a business. A good place to start would be Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University (FPU), or something similar.

I honestly didn’t seriously start giving to either of my alma maters until going through the FPU class taught at my church. In FPU, I learned that the greatest misunderstanding about money is that one of major keys to building and maintaining wealth is blessing others. Put another way, sustained financial health and giving are a function of one another, and in order for one to be able to give, one’s own financial house must first be in order.

Student loan debt can also help explain the lack of giving, but my suspicion is that there’s a percentage of graduates that once they get established, their finances aren’t situated so that they’re able to give back, or giving back just isn’t a priority. Coming from the African American community, there is truth to the myth that we as a community often collectively make poor financial decisions, particularly when ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, ‘signaling’, and trying to portray a certain image. For this reason, and because so many of us don’t get it at home, HBCUs once again may do good to expose their students to a financial literacy a curricula such as FPU which ultimately stresses sound financial decision making and ultimately charitable giving.

So why give back? Giving back to our alma maters, especially HBCUs is important if we want to see future generations grow and thrive. One of the keys to advancement of the African American community in the United States is financial stability as a group. Likewise the community itself has a responsibility to give its younger generations a fighting chance to participate in our new global economy. In the United States, economic power influences everything else. Regarding my own graduating class of 1999, we can do better than a 14% rate of participation in terms of giving back to our alma mater, as can graduates from other institutions.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. In you enjoyed this post you might also enjoy:

What are your plans for your tax cut? Thought on what can be done with heavier paychecks and paying tax
Who will have the skills to benefit from Apple’s $350 investment?
Challenging stereotypes and misconceptions on household income and wealth building
We should’ve bought Facebook and Bitcoin stock: An investing story
Your net worth, your gross salary and what they mean
The difference between being cheap and frugal

If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right-hand column in this post and throughout the site. Please visit my YouTube channel entitled, Big Discussions76.  Lastly follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

JCSU DC Alumni Chapter President Robert Ridley discusses the 150 and Beyond Campaign

One of the focuses of the Big Words Blog Site is Education – all aspects.  Higher education is not just a means to a career and upward mobility, but it’s also a business with both benefits and costs to the student, parents, the institution, and society.  Likewise, one of the major concerns of parents and students, in addition to getting into a school, is actually financing the college tuition, room and board.  The amount of money awarded students was, in fact, one of the major discussion points recently at the Richard T. Montgomery High School and the Alfred Street Baptist Church HBCU College Fairs.  Students received both onsite admissions and financial awards from prospective Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Like many of my peers I have two alma maters – one a predominantly white institution (PWI), and a the other an HBCU institution.  When I think about the University of Michigan I tend not to think about financial challenges.  The opposite is true for my first alma mater, Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) and other HBCU’s.  I first heard about anemic alumni giving to HBCU’s in one of Spike Lee’s earliest films, School Daze.  These discussions continued throughout the years, and when writing for the Examiner I had an opportunity to interview Allstate’s Cheryl Harris, a Florida A & M University.  She talked about low alumni giving and the Allstate campaigns with the Tom Joyner Foundation for raising money for HBCUs.

Four years ago, I became active in the JCSU DC Alumni Chapter which has been a very educational experience.  Alumni Chapters at smaller institutions are critical for steering new students to schools and helping to raise money so that they can remain open; again, something critical for HBCUs.  Since becoming the Treasurer for the local Alumni Chapter, I have had the privilege of working alongside my fellow Class of ‘99 alumnus and Chapter President, Robert “Big Philly” Ridley (Community Health Education).

Through his love for JCSU and the DC Alumni Chapter, Robert has worked tirelessly over the years to give back to our alma mater and future generations of Smithites.  Under his leadership, our chapter has recently embarked on the “150 and Beyond Campaign” to raise money for the JCSU DC Alumni Chapter’s scholarship endowment.  To help get the word out about the campaign and encourage participation, Robert recently agreed to talk about the DC Alumni Chapter and the 150 and Beyond Campaign.

Anwar Dunbar:  First, Philly, thank you for allowing me help get the word out about the 150 and Beyond Campaign.  I’ve learned a lot about higher education, what Alumni Chapters do, and some of the inner workings of JCSU by working alongside you, Brenda Jones-Hammond and Marion Massey (and others) in the JCSU DC Alumni Chapter.  We’re all volunteers and do what we do because we love Smith and as President, you’ve basically driven this whole movement.  In my opinion Smith is very fortunate to have someone like you advocating and being an ambassador on its behalf.

So first, let’s get some background information.  How did you come to be the President of the JCSU DC Alumni Chapter?  What are your goals for the Alumni club?  What have been some of the challenges?

Robert Ridley:  I have been the President of the JCSU DC Alumni Chapter/Club for the past eight years.  When I became President, I was originally designated to be the Vice-President.  The designated President accepted a position overseas a month before the election.  Without any additional candidates, I was voted to become the youngest President in the history of the Chapter.

My primary goal as President is to increase membership and awareness about our Alumni Chapter.  During my tenure, I’ve increased membership from 24 members to more than 100 at its peak.  The biggest challenge in leading the Chapter is ensuring that our activities reach all alumni regardless of age.  Membership is trending down currently because it’s a constant struggle to provide activities to such a broad range of alumni age-wise.  We struggle as a chapter to create narratives to encourage younger alumni participation.

AD:  Yes, we’ve scratched our heads quite a bit in terms of the “Young Alumni” (the Millennials) and their participation, or the lack there of, and we haven’t figured it out yet (laughing).

You’ve actually talked to the younger alumni in the DC area about the kind of things they’re looking for and their lives post JCSU.  You’ve also done some research on Millennials and their needs and tendencies, and the bulk of our chapter participants/members are interestingly over 30 years of age.  Do you want to say anything about this?

RR:  As it relates directly to the younger alumni, I encourage them to participate, share their voices and don’t become frustrated with the more seasoned alumni.  I have found in my time as President, that the seasoned older alumni are open to any ideas you have as long as you can support them and they’re well thought out.  The JCSU DC Alumni Chapter offers a perfect opportunity for you to be engaged with others from your alma mater, along with providing you an opportunity to shape the HBCU landscape for future generations.  I don’t want to be the President for life and I am looking for young leaders to step forward and make the position their own. I encourage them to share their ideas and ways of communicating, and I ensure you it will be rewarding.

AD:  That’s interesting Philly.  And yes, to any younger alumni reading this, questioning your ideas and trying to better understand them isn’t necessarily rejecting them.  Sometimes it further helps in their development.  It’s also true that, depending the generation, individuals can communicate and interact very, very differently.

What is the 150 and Beyond Campaign?  Where did the idea come from?

RR:  The 150 and Beyond Campaign was created to bring awareness to JCSU’s 150th Anniversary.  We’re looking for 150 alumni to give at least $150 to JCSU by June 30, 2017.  The idea came from myself and others within our chapter when we made a strategic commitment to have everything we do in 2017 speak to the University’s 150th anniversary.

AD:  For the lay person, what exactly is an endowment and why are they important?  I remember frequently hearing talk about endowments when I was student at JCSU, and the DC Alumni Chapter recently started one.  As students enrolled at universities and alumni, it’s often not clear what goes into the health and maintenance of an institution.  Why should alumni give to the endowments at their alma maters?

RR:  Approximately five years ago, the University reached out to the Alumni Chapter to switch our annual scholarship to an endowment.  The endowment for the Chapter was created to ensure that funds are there to support students from the DC, MD, and VA (the DMV) attending JCSU.  Students currently enrolled at JCSU who are sophomores, juniors, or seniors with a GPA of 2.7 or higher are eligible for scholarship awards from the Chapter’s Endowment.  The award is given to students with the most need and who meet the above criteria.

Endowments are important because they allow universities to provide funding assistance for students.  They increase the financial health of the institution and it shows perspective funding corporations that your school can raise funds.

AD:  Who can donate to the 150 and Beyond Campaign and where can they donate?

RR:  We are asking for 150 of the 900 plus alumni in the Washington, DC area to give towards the 150 and Beyond Campaign.  Friends of the University are also welcome and encouraged to participate.  To date we have about 30 donations to the campaign which include longtime friends of the chapter like Ms. Glenda West and Mrs. Wade.

AD:  Okay, Philly, thank you for allowing me to help get the word out about this.  Smith (JCSU) did a lot for us, and it’s very important to make sure that the Smithites who are coming after us get the same chances to succeed and advance.  Are there anymore announcements or upcoming events regarding our Chapter?

RR:  Yes, we’re hosting our annual Bulls Brunch on June 1, 2017, which is also a fundraiser.  The details will be on our website.

AD:  Okay, thank you.

To make a donation to the 150 and Beyond Campaign, go to the JCSU DC Alumni Chapter website at: www.jcsualumnidc.org.  The Chapter can also be followed on Facebook, and on Twitter and Instagram at @JCSUAlumniDC.  Thank you for taking the time to read this interview.  Please share it and or leave comments.