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Looking back: Support for HBCUs threads through Kresge’s history

Centennial, Education

As part of our centennial, we’re sharing stories of our last 100 years throughout 2024. To learn more about Kresge’s history, visit 

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) hold immense significance in the hearts and minds of their graduates… and for good reason. HBCUs have historically provided a nurturing educational environment for students of color, fostering their academic success and bridging the racial attainment and wealth gaps for graduates.

They’ve also factored into much of Kresge’s history. The earliest support for HBCUs dates back to the 1940s and continues through today.

Since their founding, HBCUs have had a disproportionately positive impact on society despite their limited financial resources, direct underinvestment by government, and generally having to do more with less. This historic lack of financial support has resulted in deteriorating infrastructure and extensive amounts of deferred maintenance, high staff turnover, smaller endowments, and increased debt burdens.

Public HBCUs possess 54% fewer assets per student than other public institutions, while private HBCUs have 79% less than their non-HBCU counterparts. HBCUs face discrimination in the capital markets, including consistent patterns of higher-cost borrowing for HBCUs, even when they have had bond ratings that equal or exceed those of PWIs.

President & CEO Rip Rapson

“Since the racial justice reckoning that began after George Floyd’s murder in 2020,” Kresge President & CEO Rip Rapson said, “we know more capital has started to flow toward HBCUs. But we’ve seen in our work that capital alone doesn’t do the trick.”

This financial disparity extends to state and federal funding, where HBCUs have historically received an inequitable share. This disparity originates from a multifaceted historical context. Since 1890, when the original 1862 Morrill Act that established land grant colleges was expanded to include HBCUs, most public HBCUs have never received their fair share of federal- state matching grants. Southern states have typically refused to fund the federal government’s one-to-one state match for land grant colleges, causing land-grant HBCUs to forfeit the federal portion of funds. In addition, states have provided inequitable funding generally to both public and private HBCUS compared to PWIs, resulting in significantly less federal funding and contracts to HBCUs than their PWI counterparts.

HBCUs make up only 3% of U.S. colleges and universities but enroll 10% of all African Americans, produce 70% of the country’s Black doctors, 80% of its Black judges, 40% of the Black engineers, and a sitting U.S. vice president. As a result of their disproportionately large role in educating the nation’s Black students, HBCUs play a vital role in narrowing the income and wealth gap by elevating families from lower-income backgrounds to higher incomes at nearly double the rate of predominantly white institutions.

HBCU investments through the years

A letter from 1945 marks the receipt of Kresge's first gift to the HBCU sector, with support to the UNCF (United Negro College Fund) annual campaign.
Students in class take notes at a UNCF affiliated-school. Photo by Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
The relationship with Meharry began during Kresge’s challenge grants era when trustees approved a $1.5-million grant to support the construction of a library and learning resources center (LRC). As with all Kresge’s challenge grants the idea was to incentivize the college to raise the balance of the funds needed for construction from others. The effort was successful and the center was dedicated as the Stanley S. Kresge Learning Resources Center in April 1973.
A photo from Kresge's 50th year report shows medical students at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn.
At the closure of the HBCU Initiative, a comprehensive report "Changing the Odds" shared the results of the five-year campaign to help HBCUs improve fundraising capacity and results,
Kresge Education Program Managing Director Bill Moses (center) sits on a panel at the Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCU) Philanthropy Symposium July 19-21, 2017 in Dover, DE.
Kresge supported the HBCU Philanthropy gathering for many years. This 2017 photo shows attendees at a networking event on the beach. That year’s symposium achieved the largest attendance in the history of the event, to that date, with more than 130 fundraisers taking part in the conference. Thirty-eight schools attended representing 19 states, including Washington D.C. and the U.S. Virgin Islands. For the first time, private HBCUs were among the participating institutions.
Delaware State University aspires to be the premier convener of education and the philanthropic community to sustain the foundation of student success through private giving. The mission of the HBCU Philanthropy Symposium is to provide a supportive environment for Advancement professionals to strengthen all aspects of revenue generation through consortium building, idea sharing, and professional development.
HBCU Advisory Panel members, including Kresge's Bill Moses, are sworn-in for service in Washington, D.C. during the panel's first convening May 2022.
A 2019 grant to Dillard University came through the Advancing Student Transportation Solutions initiative. The $100,000 planning grant intended to help Dillard identify and address transit barriers to college student success at Dillard, Delgado Community College, and the University of New Orleans. Grant Summary:
The early years of engagement

Kresge has long advocated for and supported HBCUs, recognizing their pivotal role in advancing educational equity. In 1945, as the country emerged from World War II, Kresge awarded the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) $5,000 toward the annual campaign. These grants continued annually for more than two decades.

Soon after, Kresge provided capital challenge grants to construct facilities on campuses, including Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Philander Smith College in Little Rock, and Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta.

In 1979 and 1992, Kresge made grants to UNCF totaling $6 million and $15 million (adjusted for inflation, roughly $25.4 million and $32.9 million, respectively). Each was the foundation’s largest grant to a single organization at the time. The UNCF support was intended to help the organization fund capital projects at multiple institutions and support schools’ fundraising capacity.

Dr. Michael Lomax, president & CEO of UNCF

“The notion of raising significant dollars for historically Black colleges and not doing it one institution at a time but for a network of institutions was innovative and unusual in American higher education, and certainly innovative and unusual for historically Black colleges,” said Michael Lomax, Ph.D., president of UNCF. “From our first campaign in 1944, we demonstrated that a united campaign approach significantly improved the results. including that $6 million gift … The Kresge support was not only financially important because of the significant numbers, but the investment also represented a Good Housekeeping seal of approval.”

Doubling down on the promise

In 1999, a special Kresge HBCU Initiative earmarked $18 million in funding over five years to support HBCU fundraising. The grant model used to administer the funds broke away from the typical capital challenge grant model of that time at Kresge. Grantees received different forms of support, including training, convening, mentoring, technical assistance, and access to nationally recognized consultants. Each year, a Learning Institute was held for advancement professionals working to build their institutions’ alumni relations, communications, fundraising, and marketing.

“We paid for systems and personnel to beef up their development staffs. We gave them consultants, we gave them challenge grants, and we rode with them for five years,” said former Kresge President John Marshall in an interview in 2014. “It was an effective way to try to push into not only the people running these institutions but the boards and people who would see it as an opportunity.”

Kresge Education Program Managing Director Bill Moses

Bill Moses, then a program officer and now the Education Program managing director, stresses the importance of the five-year timeline. “We were dealing with problems that took decades or centuries to be created,” he said. “And you can’t fix them in three-year, let alone one-year grants.”

Moreover, the grants were structured in a highly innovative model. Unrestricted bonus grants totaling up to $25,000 per year were awarded to the institutions as they achieved their annual benchmarks. A one-time $100,000 challenge grant could be earned by achieving a major milestone.

“As you set and met those goals, you were getting bonus grants, so you were turbocharging progress,” says Moses.

As Kresge celebrates its centennial, the HBCU context has evolved, providing a unique opportunity to genuinely partner with and empower these institutions. Kresge’s Education Program is at work to implement strategies that go deeper to provide comprehensive support to HBCUs, ensuring their long-term solvency, advancement and impact on both a national and community level.

Recent investments have included a grant to the National Black Environmental Justice Network (NBEJN), the sole Black-led and focused Environmental Justice coalition in the nation. This $750,000 grant includes support from Kresge’s Environment, Education and American Cities Programs. NBEJN’s HBCU Consortium Collaboration aims to engage over 50 HBCUs in training the next generation of climate and environmental justice leaders

Kresge Education Program Officer Ashley Johnson

“These recent investments speak to what we have heard directly from the field. Grants like this help us to meet HBCUs in the moment,” said Ashley Johnson, program officer, Education Program. “Many of these institutions were founded in states and cities greatly impacted by climate change, and too often, they are left out of the climate resiliency conversation. We are also implementing a shared capital strategy that includes grants and impact investments.”

Kresge supported the HBCU Brilliance Initiative at Reinvestment Fund with a $3.5 million social investment and a $750,000 grant. The HBCU Brilliance Initiative aims to create a positive and sustainable future for HBCUs, ensuring that these institutions continue to thrive and contribute to their communities, students and society. In total, Kresge’s HBCU support includes 60 grants and $75 million.

Social Investment Officer Erika Brice

“I’m a proud product of an HBCU,” said Kresge Social Investment Officer Erika Brice, who worked on the social investment to the Reinvestment Fund. “As a Howard graduate, my education at one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious HBCUs set me up for a successful and rewarding career in community development and now social investing. And more than just giving me a strong education, being in a community of fellow students who shared my culture and background allowed me to bloom into myself in an environment where I felt safe, respected and fully seen.”