By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
Dig through the largely troubling headlines on struggling Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and Charlie W. Hill brings an emerging trend sharply into focus.
At Virginia State University in March at the Founder’s Day program, Hill presented $100,000 to Interim President Pamela Hammond to establish the Annase Wilks Hill Minerva Circle Endowment. The endowment will fund scholarships for outstanding female students in STEM programs. Named in honor of his late wife, Annase Wilks Hill, who went on to become a scientist after earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in microbiology at VSU, the recent endowment highlights a growing trend at Virginia State.
While enrollment dropped by 550 students in September, and Virginia State closed residence halls, cut back on dining operations and curtailed maintenance, according to news reports. Many have stepped in to offer help.
“We have many who are putting their money where their mouth is,” said Thomas Reed, director of university relations at Virginia State.
“We saw a nearly 30 percent increase in major donors this past year,” Reed said. “We saw a 20 percent increase in the number of donations in the past year.”
According to news reports, VSU was facing a tough year. Not only was it facing a shortfall this fiscal year of $5.3 million, including the loss of revenue from enrollment, a $2.4 million reduction from anticipated state appropriations in June, and the 5 percent cut all state agencies were ordered to make last month after the enrollment loss cost VSU $1.6 million.
“We have had a good year,” Reed said. “It is not how you start but how you end. We ended strong and are going to continue on that momentum.”
“I don’t have a quantitative number but we have seen an increase in the number of alumni calling us and asking what can we do,” Reed said. “And we have an increased number of alumni who are sponsoring events in their homes, as well as more informal groups banning together and saying, ‘What can we do?’ We have seen a significant increase over the past year.”
The trend is not restricted to Virginia State. Nationwide in the past two years, more grads donated funds to their alma mater, according to a U.S. News and World report published June 3, 2014. Specifically, financial contributions to colleges in the U.S. rose 9 percent in 2013.
Specifically, donations to all universities and colleges amounted to $33.8 billion in 2013, with 26.6 percent coming from alumni, according to a report from the Council for Aid to Education.
The next year, in 2014 donations nationwide climbed to nearly $38 billion, according to a January 2015 report by the Council for Aid to Education.
Virginia State is not one of the top five HBCUs with high donation levels. Specifically, Claflin ranks No. 1 in giving with a 43 percent rate. Spelman ranks No. 2 with a 37.3 percent rate. Morehouse ranks No. 3 with a 29.3 percent rate. Tuskegee and Livingstone rank in the top five, according to U.S. News and World Report.
Still, the endowment that Hill established to honor his late wife shows the nationwide trend is not only occurring at VSU.
To many HBCU grads, giving back is a habit that does not always makes headlines. For example, Hill said he has donated funds, time, and expertise to his alma mater since he graduated in 1966. Before he became a member of the board of visitors in July 2014, he worked with the Vassar Hurt Scholarship starting in the late 1960s. He has only missed three or four homecomings since 1966.
In plain terms, the number of hours he volunteered jumped from at least 10 hours a month to about 20 hours a month in recent years.
“I have always been going up to Virginia State and doing things,” Hill said. “I didn’t rediscover it when my wife passed. She and I both would go back and do things. I just became more focused in the past few years as the need became more obvious. I don’t want to convey that I rediscovered Virginia State when my wife died.
“We were doing a lot of things because we were loyal sons and daughters of Virginia State,” Hill said. “I have been donating time and money since 1966. I graduated that year and did not abandon Virginia State when I got my degree. I have only missed three or four homecomings since 1966.”
While records show that HBCU grads tend to donate at a 10 percent rate, compared to a nationwide rate of 23.6 percent, a 2012 survey by Prairie View University may explain why.
The survey showed 84 percent of the alumni at Prairie View said they did not try to help the school reach its $30 million goal, (which it reached) because they did not know about it. Moreover, 76 percent said they would have volunteered. But 65 percent said they were never asked.
“There was no effort to reach out to the very constituents who would be most proud,” said Nelson Bowman III, executive director of development at Prairie View, where the study was conducted. “Most students, he said, are not naturally inclined to give; they need to be taught.”
Many HBCU grads do not give back because of unpleasant memories, according to A Guide to Fundraising at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, a 2012 book by University of Pennsylvania Education Professor Marybeth Gasman, and Nelson Bowman of Prairie View.
“For those alumni who are asked but don’t give back, the number one reason is that they had a negative experience with financial aid, the bursar or the registrar,” Gasman said.
“My research shows that HBCU alumni do give back when asked, however, they have to be educated about philanthropy,” Gasman said.
This type of research pushed Virginia State to reach out to the 30-40 year alumni group. “It has shown a sharp intake,” Reed said. “These are the ones that once we get them on board we will be able to keep them.”
Reed said Virginia State continues to gain momentum. For example, many grads attended commencement where history was made. A record number of students – nearly 750, including a record 17 doctoral students – graduated during the university’s 127th spring commencement ceremonies in a packed Richmond Coliseum, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
And many plan to return to campus for homecoming festivities on Oct. 17, Reed said. Recently, HBCU Digest ranked Virginia State’s fine arts program at No. 1. VSU also ranked No. 12 out of 104 as the college of choice.
“I think there is a new sense of excitement in the air,” Reed said. “Our new administration has brought a breath of fresh air. There is a lot of enthusiasm among our students and alumni.”