TheGrio Daily

Black College Students Are Gonna Be A’ight

Episode 153

“HBCUs do more with less.” All month long theGrio is highlighting HBCU life, and Michael Harriot welcomes Ed Smith-Lewis from United Negro College Fund to discuss an exciting new investment that will enrich the college experience for students nationwide. The HBCU Transformation Project has received a $124M investment from Blue Meridian Partners to increase enrollment, improve efficiency, and restore struggling infrastructure. The pair discuss the value of focusing on HBCU campus needs just as much as student scholarships.

WASHINGTON, DC – OCTOBER 25: An entrance sign near the main gate at Howard University October 25, 2021 in Washington, DC. Students have complained about mold and poor conditions in some dorm rooms and over 100 students have been staging a weeks-long protest to highlight the issues. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Full transcript below.

Announcer [00:00:00] You are now listening to theGrio’s Black Podcast Network. Black Culture Amplified. 

Michael Harriot [00:00:05] You know, with the recent Supreme Court ruling, a lot of people have talked about what will happen to Black students in higher education, as if we don’t have our own institutions and our own places that we can actually attend college. Which is why I want to welcome you to theGrio Daily, the only podcast that’ll tell you that Black students, they gonna be a’ight. Yeah. So we’re back and you know, a lot of the conversation lately has been swirling around Black students, HBCU, you know, what’s going to happen with this affirmative action ruling? Of course, Deion Sanders is just always somewhere in the mix. But today, we’re going to talk about investments in Black students and investing in HBCUs. And that’s why I want to welcome today’s guest, Ed Smith-Lewis. He’s going to be here to talk to us about a historic and groundbreaking investment in HBCUs. So welcome, Mr. Lewis. How are you today? 

Ed Smith-Lewis [00:01:20] I’m doing well, Michael. Happy to be here. Whenever we’re talking HBCUs and investments, you know I’m excited. 

Michael Harriot [00:01:27] Yeah. So a lot of us like to think of HBCUs kind of like charity or something that people give out of benevolence. But I like to use the word investment and tell me why you also use the word investing instead of like donating to HBCU. 

Ed Smith-Lewis [00:01:52] To be fair, Michael, I’ll take investment, donations, gifts, checks, cash, whatever the case may be. But the reality is, when you make a gift to a historically Black college, any university for that matter, you are making an investment in the next generation of learners. Here at the United Negro College Fund, we say all the time a mind is a terrible thing to waste, but a wonderful thing to invest in. And when you make an investment in an HBCU, that $1 actually translates to $1.44 because that gift gives more from a single dollar investment to the multiple communities. HBCUs are located in typically depressed economically communities. In addition, they’re educating a set of students first generation, largely first-generation. 75% of HBCU students are low-income, 60% are first-generation students. And so you’re also investing in a transition or a transformation of generations. So that dollar keeps on giving. 

Michael Harriot [00:03:00] So today, you were here to talk about specifically a major investment into HBCUs. And because it’s an investment into HBCUs, it’s an investment in Black communities and Black students and Black people in general. So tell us about this historic investment. 

Ed Smith-Lewis [00:03:18] Yes, this historic investment, given to us by Blue Meredith Partners, is called affectionately by us, the HBCU Transformation Project. This north of $100 million investment is partnering with three of we like to call intermediary organizations. And you can think of those as like change partners for historically Black colleges and universities. That includes the United Negro College Fund, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, and a relatively new group called Partnership for Education Advancement. We’re really excited about this investment because it’s not just to your earlier question, a gift with no strings attached. It’s an investment in driving change at our very storied institutions. So not only does this investment have an audacious expectation about enrollment growth, really trying to see can we push many more of our students to not only attend historically Black colleges and universities but retain and ultimately graduate from those institutions, be retained and ultimately graduate from those institutions. The work really centers around what we like to call institutional improvement, thinking about ways that we onboard students, how we engage them when they’re on campus, what they learn while they’re studying at our institutions all the way to and through where they go after they graduate. Whether that’s continue graduation or continue education in graduate school or those career opportunities. We’re really looking for ways to improve the practice of delivering higher education. 

Michael Harriot [00:05:00] Yes. So, how specifically will this money be used? Like how will students or people at HBCUs? Because, you know, listening to what you just said. Right. A lot of times we like to think of, well, we got some money, we should just give it out. When, like a lot of times with HBCUs, what we don’t have is the opportunity to make those capital investments on infrastructure that, like, might not go directly into a student’s pocket but shows up and pays off for generations to come. And so how, how will this money specifically be used? 

Ed Smith-Lewis [00:05:44] Yes, it is important to note that these dollars plus a million dollars so far will not be used for student scholarships, which is typically where most people go. They say, how can you reduce the cost of going to college for the student? We believe that’s a very worthy cause. UNCF was founded in 1944 and, to date, has raised more than $5 billion dedicated to that cause and really ensuring that our students, the next generation of students, really have access to higher education. That continues to be an important cause, something that we should champion, and something that UNCEF will never lose sight of. In terms of this investment, this is an institutional investment. So it’s really thinking about the practice of delivering higher education and how do you do so efficiently. When you’re a low-resource institution, like many HBCUs are, founded to be second-rate institutions, and because of that designation, when they were founded at a time where Black people were not allowed to be educated in this country, they’ve been fighting this battle, second class citizenry, since then. And oftentimes, what that results in is a level of underfunding that’s been proven throughout many states here in America, but also a lack of investment by high net worth individuals, philanthropic organizations, and individuals like ourselves. From a value proposition standpoint, we’re investing in marketing the story the narrative of those institutions such that the world understands more broadly. From an infrastructure standpoint, we’re investing in data and data systems that allow our institutions to understand what’s happening to their students and to use that data to make better-informed decisions. And so much of this grant is not direct to students. It’s very much about understanding how the institution both thinks about its future, prepares for that future, and then takes actionable steps to improve outcomes today. 

Michael Harriot [00:07:43] Well, that’s actually, you know, I’ve been reading talking with John Wilson and reading his latest book, and he argues that, you know, we often focus on the cost of college from a student perspective and not from the institutional and infrastructure perspective, which is a more efficient way to reduce costs. Giving to the institution instead of delivering scholarships to students is a more efficient way to reduce costs. But I want to go back to something you said earlier, right. Because I don’t think that we emphasize this enough. There are studies that show that students who attend HBCUs are more successful than students who attend similar-sized colleges that are not HBCUs. There are also studies, Forbes Every year does a list of a ranking of the most financially feasible institutions. And what’s always surprising to me is that HBCUs are always at the top of the list because they do more with less. If you have an unlimited endowment like Harvard, right? Like you could do whatever you want to with the money, but delivering the return on the investment or the dollar per endowment, I think HBCUs average better than actually predominantly white colleges. And I think that’s something that people don’t know. And I think that we, you know, scholarships is great because students need help to attend college. But infrastructure is where historically Black colleges need help. And I think that it is important for us to do that, to have those kinds of investments also. Well, I want to thank you for coming on. I know we’re running short on time, but one of the things that we do every week on this show is that we end with our Black said. And it could be something your grandmamma told you, something you heard at church, you know, something which you heard at a cookout, you know how we talk. You know, ain’t no fun when a rabbit got the gun. Something like that. So what’s your favorite Black saying? 

Ed Smith-Lewis [00:10:00] Oh, my favorite Black saying is, “Trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents.” And the reason why I focus on that here is because HBCUs do do more with less. We are constantly taking pennies on the dollar and doing extraordinary. Turn it into extraordinary outcomes for the Black community and the Black students that we serve. And, you know, the question is, what if we had a dollar? What could we make out of that? 

Michael Harriot [00:10:24] Right. So that’s why I want to thank you for coming. I want to remind the audience to download that Grio app, to subscribe, to tell a friend about this podcast, and to give to the UNCF and HBCUs in general. Right. And I want to remind you that we always end with a Black phrase. And today’s Black phrase is, “We actually have been making a dollar out of 15 cents.” We’ll see you next time or theGrio Daily. If you like what you heard, please give us a five-star review. Download theGrio app, subscribe to the show, and to share it with everyone you know. Please email all questions, suggestions, and compliments to podcasts at theGrio dot com. 

Announcer [00:11:13] You are now listening to theGrio’s Black Podcast Network. Black Culture Amplified.