UNCF CEO Michael Lomax on the college degree as an elevator for social mobility

COVID-19 and George Floyd’s death drove millions of dollars in donations to historically Black colleges, but United Negro College Fund CEO Michael Lomax says this is just the start.

In fundraising, the most important moments often occur between the initial handshakes of a charitable event and the final toasts, when a few guests decide buying a ticket to the event isn’t enough and open up their checkbooks.

So as United Negro College Fund (UNCF) CEO Michael Lomax watched COVID-19 wipe out his 2020 event calendar, he started to worry about the future. The UNCF underwrites scholarships for Black students and general scholarship funds for 37 private historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), including Morehouse and Spelman where Lomax used to teach literature.

“We were fearful in mid-March that [the pandemic] would be a death blow to the UNCF,” he says. “We rely heavily on special events where people come together to express their support of our work and we had to cancel all our events for the next 12 months.”

The UNCF reduced compensation to keep employees on payroll and transferred from in-person to online events. Then, as it faced up to the challenges of the lockdown, UNCF and the U.S. as a whole was rocked by the killing of George Floyd.

In a statement addressing the deaths of Floyd and others, Lomax tied the plight of Blacks in the U.S. to HBCUs and the UNCF. “And just as we unequivocally declare that Black lives matter,” he wrote at the time, “so too we affirm that HBCUs’ continued existence matters and Black college students’ abilities and opportunities to attend their chosen HBCUs matter.” 

A month after the incident, Lomax says, Floyd’s death revealed to the country something many in the civil rights community had felt for a long time.

“Conditions haven’t changed much for those of us who spend every day working on racial injustice and inequality,” he adds. “COVID-19 brought the inequality of our conditions into stark relief because so many more low-income Black people have gotten the disease and have been hospitalized or died as a result.”

He believes the disease discriminates against poor people and Black people because of the conditions in which they live.

“And when you follow that with the George Floyd tragedy, you Black people are not only dealing with a physiological disease, they are also still dealing with the disease of racism.”

Changing attitudes

Lomax does acknowledge attitudes have changed since Floyd’s death and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests. Organizations that in the past largely stayed out of the racial/political fray took very public stands on race and police brutality — and public polling showed increased support for groups such as Black Lives Matter.

That clarity led to a series of high-profile donations. In mid-June, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and his wife, Patty Quillin, donated $40 million each to UNCF, Spelman College and Morehouse College. It was the largest ever individual gift in support of student scholarships at HBCUs.

Other large sums, such as Amazon’s $1 million donation in early June, also streamed in. “If you aggregate what has come in we’re well over $200 million in terms of large gifts,” says Lomax. 

And not all donors are wealthy tech CEOs. “People supporting us online tripled in the last month,” he adds. “The number of donations we’ve received year to date is equivalent to all of last year.” [This interview took place on July 27.]

But Lomax says the recent influx of cash only started to make a dent in what was a traditionally difficult barrier for the UNCF and its HBCUs: the propensity for donors to fund big-name schools.

“The wealthiest people often only support institutions they know well,” he explains. “They give to colleges they attended and not to institutions Blacks attend. And they think all colleges have to be Harvard, Yale or Ivy League. But they’re not seeing the extreme value, benefit and practicality in Black colleges.”

(L-R) Earl G. Graves Sr, Caroline Kennedy, Rev. Al Sharpton and Michael L. Lomax attend the UNCF 65th Anniversary dinner in 2009. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

Lomax and the UNCF reframed the story to acknowledge that, while America has a diverse landscape of higher education, with Catholic, Jewish and other schools, for the lowest income Black students a unique set of HBCU institutions consistently produce stronger results with fewer resources.

“The median endowment for a (four-year) HBCU is $15.7 million,” he says. “If you aggregate the endowments of all HBCUs you get about $3.8 billion, less than 10% of Harvard’s alone. For our schools to be even stronger, have more impact and to modernize campuses, we need a significant infusion of capital.”

Part of Lomax’s plan is to convince more high-net-worth donors such as Quillin and Hastings that UNCF is not a charity, rather an investment in the Black community.

“To take these institutions to a new level we have to be very aggressive about pursuing resources,” he says. “My goal over my remaining tenure is to raise another $6 billion. That way HBCUs can do more with more as opposed to doing more with less.”

As Lomax points out: “You can get to a billion one dollar at a time or $1 million dollars at a time. That’s a lot faster. My job is to build on the donations that we got from Patty and Reed… but also not stop taking that one dollar. We have to raise awareness at every level.”

76 years and still going strong

The UNCF is a hybrid organization. Though perceived by some as solely a scholarship fund, it only began covering individual students’ college costs in the 1970s. Before that it funded historically Black colleges and universities directly.

Today the group does both, providing scholarships while still raising money for its 37-member network to support academic programs and keep tuition low. It also administers other programs, such as the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, and it lobbies nationally on behalf of HBCUs.

Had the pandemic stopped its fundraising and scholarship work, the impact on Black students would have been profound. 

Since it formed 76 years ago, the UNCF has raised $5 billion for scholarships and HBCUs. Its programs fund 10,000 scholarships a year and have helped students obtain more than 500,000 degrees. About 70% of UNCF recipients eventually graduate, nine points higher than the national average for all students.

“Ten years out of graduation, our students earn $71,000 a year, which puts them in a strong position in the American economy,” Lomax says. “We’re not producing millionaires, but we are producing the middle class. The African-American community is not a wealthy community. There is still a salary penalty for being Black. But the surest way of moving up that elevator of social mobility is to get a college degree.”

The demise of the UNCF would also affect the country as a whole because of the central role it plays in improving life for Black Americans. As Lomax points out, many civil rights luminaries attended HBCUs, including the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA).

“Our graduates led the fight for civil rights, whether it was Martin Luther King Jr. or John Lewis,” Lomax says. “Marian Wright Edelman was a graduate of Spelman College. The student movement of the ’60s was the Black Lives Matter of its day.”

UNCF has been involved with Black civil rights since it started. Founder Frederick Patterson proposed creating it in a 1943 letter to the influential Pittsburgh Courier in the midst of that paper’s famous “Double V Campaign,” an initiative that asked Black Americans to support the war effort while pushing the government to end racist policies.

Lomax notes that Ralph Ellison’s great novel from 1952 termed the protagonist “The Invisible Man.” “They don’t see into our community and into our lives and the injustices we feel every day,” he says. “This disease and the Floyd killing brought all this to their attention. The conditions are no different but visibility is much clearer for many people.”

Though Lomax theorizes the coronavirus pandemic may have given the white population more time to focus on the reality of the racial divide, he’s not 100% certain why opinion has shifted. “I don’t know why Americans are seeing what they were not able to before,” he says. “The stark inequality of Black and white people.”

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