Why HBCUs need alumni more than graduates (and financial literacy, too)

**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**

A guest post by Anwar Dunbar

Being highly involved in the Washington D.C. 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 had 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.

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.  Thus donations from alumni have become more important.

As unofficially told by an insider, for the 2014 fiscal year, less than 15% 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 HBCU graduates 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 is hard feelings towards one’s alma mater.  Many graduates feel bitter about their experience at their alma mater 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.  If my hypothesis is true and many students are matriculating into our HBCU’s with a low level of Financial Literacy, HBCU’s may do good to start educating their students on these topics from day one.  A good place to start would be Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University (FPU), or something similar.

I 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 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 keeping up with the Joneses 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 grown and thrive.  One of the keys to advancement of the African American community in the United States is financial stability and advancement 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 14% giving back to our alma mater, as can graduates from other institutions.



Anwar Y. Dunbar is a Regulatory Scientist in the Federal Government where he registers and regulates Pesticides.  He earned his Ph.D. in Pharmacology from the University of Michigan and his Bachelor’s Degree in General Biology from Johnson C. Smith University.  In addition to publishing numerous research articles in competitive scientific journals,  he has also published over one hundred articles for the Examiner (www.examiner.com) on numerous education and literacy related topics in the areas of; Current Events and Culture, Higher Education, Financial Literacy, and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).  He actively mentors youth and works to spread awareness of STEM careers to minority students.  He also tutors in the subjects of Biology, Chemistry and Physics.  He is a native of Buffalo, NY.  He can be contacted via email at [email protected], and can be followed on Twitter @anwaryusef.

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  • Great read… I definitely agree to some extent. You mentioned student loa debt being a primary reason for not giving back and I’m not are if I speak for myself, but this is the primary reason for my lack of giving. After I learned the game a couple of years back I found out that interest on these loans accrues on a daily basis. What that means to me is that there is no better way for me to spend my money than dumping everything on that loan that I possibly can. It’s not even worth saving in a close to 0% interest bank account. In that same vein it’s not even worth giving to a university who was charging somewhere around $17k/ year when I graduated. I had plenty of scholarships throughout my tenure at Smith but it was never enough. Not to mention going to grad school made things worse. As you said financial literacy is key. My first priority is to pay off my personal debt then I can give back to the university I love.

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