A philanthropic group whose funders include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and MacKenzie Scott is giving $124 million to historically Black colleges and universities, aiming to shore up—and ultimately expand—the financially strapped schools.
The money, from Blue Meridian Partners headed by Nancy Roob, will go to the HBCU Transformation Project, which launched last year and currently provides grants to 40 public and private schools for projects focused on improving enrollment, retention and graduation rates. Much of the funding targets essentials such as technology upgrades, data collection and academic support programs, which Blue Meridian says can help set the institutions up for long-term sustainability.
The project is a collaboration run by the United Negro College Fund, Thurgood Marshall College Fund and Partnership for Education Advancement. In addition to making grants directly to schools, it lets institutions team up to pay lower rates for tools such as student-support chatbots and fundraising software, and to exchange tips on what is working well.
Blue Meridian pools funds from donors, who also include the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies and the Ballmer Group, and backs projects related to social and economic mobility.
Historically Black colleges have seen a renaissance of sorts in recent years, with prospective student interest spiking in the wake of the 2020 racial justice protests and again after the Supreme Court ruling this summer that made some Black students question how welcome they would be at predominantly white institutions. But the country’s roughly 100 HBCUs generally have tiny endowments and tight budgets, and cater to students with significant financial need, making growth a challenge.
“I have an asset that’s performing well, but is underinvested,” said Jim Shelton, president and chief investment and impact officer at Blue Meridian, noting that HBCUs already educate a significant share of Black doctors, teachers and lawyers. “If I put in more resources, what could happen?”
The HBCU Transformation Project aims to bring on more school partners with the new round of funding. It has set ambitious goals: reduce historical funding inequities for HBCUs, boost enrollment at HBCUs by 90,000 over the next three years—roughly a 40% jump from 2020 figures—and increase the number of HBCU graduates by 22,000, or 54%.
Blue Meridian first teamed up with the Transformation Project backers during the pandemic, sending $15 million in 2020 to help schools survive the crisis.
The philanthropy then invested in the HBCU Transformation Project—a collaboration among those three groups—last year, with a gift of $60 million. Shelton says the latest gift is a response to early signs of success, including significant enrollment and retention increases at some of the first partner schools.
Last fall, Norfolk State University in Virginia adopted a new platform that lightens the paperwork load for staff and makes it easier for students and staff to communicate about things such as enrollment, financial aid and course registration. It has also used funds for a consultant to map out a long-term enrollment strategy, including how to pitch itself to students, which groups to target and how to simplify the admission process.
“All of these things are things that we needed but we would’ve had to move resources from one thing to another to try to afford this,” said Norfolk State President Javaune Adams-Gaston.
Adams-Gaston said she is also working to upgrade the school’s data collection and analysis systems, so it can better track progress and identify areas of concern such as retention rates for a particular subset of students or how performance in different courses predicts later success.
“We often don’t have the resources to do large-scale projects that are really important to the 21st century educational experience,” she said.
In 2020, Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings and his wife donated $120 million to Morehouse College, Spelman College and the UNCF. The donation was earmarked for student-financial aid.
Schools say that type of support is crucial, but that they also need help covering less glamorous costs, such as software that lets them keep track of student progress or infrastructure upgrades on dilapidated buildings.
One fruitful initiative schools have adopted is a system that nudges students to apply for scholarships and reminds them of coming deadlines. Nearly two-thirds of students at HBCUs take out federal loans, Education Department data show, and those who borrow tend to take on more debt than students at other schools.
In addition to the messaging service, University of Maryland Eastern Shore in recent years launched a software program that allows advisers and faculty to communicate with students, and with one another, to flag concerns such as absences or offer praise on improving grades.
“Everyone’s on one platform to help push you along,” Brown said.
Nancy Roob is the Chief Executive Officer of Blue Meridian Partners.
Previously, Nancy was the President and CEO of The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation (EMCF), where she played a major role in developing and implementing EMCF’s grantmaking strategy of making large, long-term investments in building the organizational capacity and evidence base of nonprofits whose programs have the potential to lift the life prospects of greater numbers of America’s most disadvantaged youth.
She also pioneered a form of coordinated, collaborative investment, called growth capital aggregation, which in eight years leveraged $155 million of EMCF’s own funds to help 16 grantees secure nearly $487 million in additional private and public funding. The launch in 2016 of Blue Meridian Partners opened a new chapter in the evolution of this investment approach. (Nancy Roob and Chairman Stan Druckenmiller discussed Blue Meridian Partners in the Nonprofit Quarterly.) In 2017, Nancy spoke to TedX about her hope that Blue Meridian’s performance-based investments of up to $200 million will revolutionize giving and create “a new normal” for philanthropy. In 2021, Forbes included Nancy in its list of 50 women over the age of 50 who are forging a more innovative and inclusive financial future.
Before becoming president in 2005, Nancy was the Foundation’s vice president and chief operating officer. Prior to that, she developed EMCF’s Program for New York Neighborhoods, which launched community-building and neighborhood-stabilization projects in the South Bronx and Central Harlem. One of the projects this program supported evolved into the Harlem Children’s Zone, whose success has inspired legislation to create “Promise Neighborhoods” throughout the nation.
Before she joined the Foundation, Nancy worked for the Boston Persistent Poverty Project, a program of the Rockefeller and Boston foundations; the Fund for the Homeless, a project of the Boston Foundation; and the Child Care Resource and Referral Center, also in Boston.
Nancy is a graduate and trustee of Hamilton College and holds a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.