Why Don’t Famous HBCU Alumni Send Their Children To Their Alma Maters?

Philanthropy is typically classified as the giving money without any expectation of involvement by the giver. Investment in a university, on the other hand, usually involves a gift presented with the expectation of a return on that investment, which doesn’t always have to be financial.

I believe there’s a third layer of university giving that is rarely practiced at HBCUs, and that is the concept of legacy investing. This is donating money to align yourself with a particular university, to create an environment where your success is synonymous with this university.

John F. Kennedy graduated from Harvard University with an undergraduate degree. Since his death the Kennedy’s and Harvard University have become synonymous; a large family investment established the John F. Kennedy School of Government and many family members, including JFK’s daughter Caroline, since have attended Harvard University.

Money and attendance reinforce the connection between the Kennedy and Harvard brands, and it is an example of how investing forward can benefit generations of descendants more than a university itself.

Where is that example with HBCUs?

Earl Graves and Reginald F. Lewis are HBCU alumni giants and arguably two of the most independent Black business success stories of the twentieth century. Both men were graduates of public, state-funded HBCUs; Morgan State University and Virginia State University, respectively. Both men pledged and donated millions to their alma maters since their matriculation, and the schools of business are named after them (1995 for Graves at Morgan and 2010 for Lewis at Virginia State).

But one piece of that honorable equation is missing; the legacy of attendance at said alma mater for any of their direct descendents.

Lewis also donated the largest gift at the time to Harvard University of $3 million dollars which established The Reginald Lewis Fellowship for Law Teaching at Harvard Law School. Both of his children attended chose Harvard over Virginia State for their degrees. Ther choices removed any possibility of legacy building at VSU.

Despite the lack of press behind Graves donations, his family’s legacy of education is far more accessible. His three sons all attended Ivy League schools for their undergraduate and postgraduate degrees; and of the four of his eight grandchildren who could be researched, one has attended an Ivy and the others have attended PWIs.

Of the seven direct descendent that can easily be verified, none have even attended an HBCU, let alone Morgan. This is despite the the fact that all of the four grandchildren that I could verify entered college after the business school was named in his honor. During this time as well, Graves served on the board of trustees at Howard University, a school considered the preeminent HBCU in America.

Some could argue that these disconnections between distinguished alumni and their family ties to these schools are directly reflective of their financial investments. The rough total that’s been noted by various publications to have been donated by Lewis to Virginia State is around $1.5 million dollars compared to roughly $4.5 million total donated to Harvard University. It is worth mentioning that Harvard posts the largest university endowment in the world at $37 billion dollars, compared to Virginia State at $47 million dollars; less than one percent of Harvard’s endowment figure.

Virginia State could do substantially more with Lewis’ donation to Harvard; the richest school in the world, but it shows the stark difference in the legacy of his investment into Harvard University versus his philanthropic view of Virginia State.

Graves donations to Morgan or otherwise aren’t as published and widely known. But it can easily be inferred they’re quite substantial due to the naming of the business school in his honor.

These two legacies (or lack thereof) raise some interesting questions about HBCUs, philanthropy, and perception in education. We’re all taught that a degree from a more prestigious university holds more weight in the workplace than a degree from one with less prominence. We fail to realize it is the success of alumni which builds that prominence; that fuels the university cycle of investment.

Maybe this is why none (that we could verify) of Graves or Lewis’ descendants decided to attend their HBCU alma maters. Maybe the wealth they acquired provided opportunities to attend more prominent schools, and they have. So does that mean HBCUs were only good enough for their fathers because of limited choices, and completely off the radar for the children and grandchildren afforded more options by time, tolerance and a lineage of wealth?

If the descendants of Graves and Lewis chose to attend their alma maters it would have little to no effect on their academic or economic well being; but it would been a significant cultural multiplier for these respective schools. These two men are simply an example of what happens to every HBCU. Students come in from lower economic means, excel and change their lives for the better. These students even give back to the university in a philanthropic sense, but so few set the precedent of their children attending that same school, let alone another HBCU.

A gift transforms into an investment when accompanied by lineage. When your children attend, it says of a donation “I want this university to succeed to not only benefit other students, but my family name and the lives of my children.” This is a huge section of giving missing from HBCUs from their elite alumni donors. It’s like giving to a panhandler in comparison to buying a share of a corporation. That gift to the panhandler  has no long-term impact and establishes no connection. Purchasing a share of a company establishes a connection that can be passed down for generations of investment into the same company.

Graves and Lewis’ philanthropic donations to their alma maters are significant donations that should be applauded, but their lack of investments in the universities are glaring. The narrative for HBCUs among its’ elite alumni cannot be that they’re good enough for a handout, but not for their descendants to attend coupled with the large investment. For state-funded HBCUs which compete against discriminatory state boards of education in terms of funding, this is particularly damaging.

For some, this argument will be viewed more from the prism of class, which is accurate to a point, because the decision of their descendants to attend Ivies is mostly about assimilation into circles of wealth. But by not attending HBCUs, they sever a connection with the community which honors them and wholeheartedly supports their family legacies.

An example of this is with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Morehouse College. I would argue Reginald Lewis and Earl Graves aren’t synonymous with their alma maters as King is with Morehouse, not because of a lack of giving but a lack of lineage. Both of MLK’s sons attended Morehouse as their father, grandfather, and great-grandfather did. MLK’s descendants are living testimonies to his investment in Morehouse College that transcends anything a mere financial gift could have accomplished.

Graves and Lewis made it and gave back to their HBCUs. But many other graduates who’ve thrived because of our beloved institutions have left them behind physically and financially. Across the nation, PWIs are making a bigger push than ever for middle class and affluent black students, every year challenging HBCU market share.

They are glaring examples in the HBCU world of a person from a majority black area who makes enough to move to a majority white area and goes back to offer support, but would never let their child grow up in that same neighborhood. Our schools do not need more donations to support fixer-upper projects; they need invested families willing to put down roots in the homes where greatness was first reared.

Orze Killgo is a graduate of Morgan State University’s Earl G. Graves School of Business and Management. He lives in Houston, TX and works as a revenue management professional for a large multi-national firm.

35 comments
  1. Great article. I can tell you from my experience, and let me be clear I am not famous in any sort of way. Most HBCUs do not invest enough in Legacy Programs. Also, most HBCUs not all do not do a good job of engaging famous alum only when they need some resources. You build alumni relationships soon after a student graduates and are engaged with them before they become famous. Example, there was a famous SUBR alum athlete that lived in the Chicago land area. He tried to send his kids to SUBR and the admissions director and the university did not even offer the Legacy Scholarship to the student. It was not until the student got accepted at another school PWI is when SUBR started scrambling to get the student more resources to come to SUBR. That should have never happened, especially when on the application you ask the applicant if they had any relatives that graduated SU. Really. So we HBCUs need to do a way better job of investing in our alumni relations, this will ensure famous alum kids will at least consider the parents HBCU when deciding on college.

  2. As the song lyric declares, “It is a man’s world but it would be nothing without a woman or a girl.” Your letter remains alarmingly silent about the connections and institutional support to HBCUs by successful black women (e.g. Oprah, etc.) and fails to acknowledge all of the successful alumni, who may not be world famous, but who, like MLK, “invest roots” in HBCUs. I advocate that more time should be given to exploring more fulfilling questions: Why are buildings named after wealthy donors opposed to alumni who make sustainable contributions of time, talent, and treasure? Why does our community continue to evaluate the prestige and progress of HBCUs with “ivies” and other “PWIs?” How many undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral degrees does Harvard award annually to black students compared to HBCUs? How are HBCUs communicating their value and marketing their unique educational experiences to compel sons and daughters of all alumni to make them their first and only choice? How are HBCU alumni holding themselves accountable for providing sustainable support to the schools that “reared” them? What evidence do you have that supports the premise that Morgan or VSU would have received some additional measurable benefit if the descendants of the Lewis or Graves families had chosen to attend their institutions? In what meaningful ways was “culture multiplied” at the institutions where the children and grandchildren of the Lewis and Graves families attended? Who determined that Howard is the “preeminent HBCU” in America? Let’s keep the conversation moving forward.

  3. I believe everyone has a right to select his/her college/university of choice. However I believe so many young people are missing out an the awesome experience and education that an HBCU can offer. I followed in my parents’ footsteps, and like them, I have an undergraduate and graduate degree from North Carolina Central University in Durham, NC. Yes, many of my friends went to PWIs because they believed the exposure and networks would enhance their chances when it came to their careers and graduate school. Just let me say, with my “HBCU” degrees, I was accepted into four “Ivy League” and six highly-rank universities to attend their Ph.D. programs. So, yes, my degrees from an HBCU gave me the background I needed to move me forward to an advanced degree!

  4. Effective communication & building relationships between alumni & administration has to be at the forefront if (HBCU’s) are to compete & thrive in the 21st century.I remember a former co-worker who is currently married to an OLE MISS LAW GRADUATE once told me.$10,000 is nothing to give to JACKSON ST. UNIVERSITY/MS. for someone who is making $100,000 per year.What if all graduates of HBCU’s thought like this.There would not be anything that HBCU’s can not accomplish…PEACE & LOVE!!!

  5. Excellent article. Legacies are definitely more than just about college choice. They also demonstrate that there is concrete belief or faith in the trajectory, faculty, and reputation of the institution. But I also strongly agree with Mr. Porter’s comment about institutions needing to reach out to those graduates and actually attempt to recruit the children of alumni. That takes little more than letters, invitations to college events, calls, and legacy scholarships. This is a two-way street. HBCUs and their alumni must both work harder to cultivate their relationships.
    As an HBCU alum (undergrad and grad) I have never heard from my university since graduating. As a current college professor, I have funnelled students toward my alma mater and taken them on tours that included my alma mater. However, I have never reached out to them regarding my own children and never really considered them in all honesty. Your article checked me. Thanks for that.

  6. It is imporatant to show our kids at a young age HBCUs. My kids are SpelHouse babies…parents are Spelman and Morehouse graduates.

    We live in mostly white communties my kids entire pre-K through 12 grade years. However, we took tnem to HBCU events such as games, banquets, alumna meetings, cookouts, church gatherings on a regular basis. They were able to meet black professionals in all fields, via these encounter.

    They are now both graduates of Spelman and Morehouse. Also completed graduate degrees at major white instiution…BOTH went to Johns Hopkins University

    The linkage and appreciation for HBCUs has to start early with kids.
    Encouraging our kids to apply to HBCUs as they go through the college application process, no matter what a high school counselor says or try to push should be something we HBCU alumni do…

    Also, alumni should be giving back financially…even a small amount….heck folks spend big bucks on concert, professional sports tickets….heck we women spend thousands of dollars on hair. So we can and should support our schools.

  7. Good response! I will also add that I believe these famous/wealthy Alumni don’t encourage their children to attend HBCU. They attend Ivies for the prestige and their children will follow that lineage and not the HBCU lineage.

  8. I see this routinely in my personal circles. African-Americans who attended HBCUs and are now very successful, prefer to send their children to ‘elite’ PWIs. It boggles the mind to think that we’ve decided to accept the notion that colleges that were never designed for us in the first place our the best places to educate and mold our children into successful, healthy adults.

  9. I totally agree with the perspective of the article. I graduated from a HBCU in 1968, and have donated money every year since 1970 to my HBCU, but I know alums who have been reluctant to donate annually to that which provided the basis for their upward mobility. It makes you want to scream, but instead you continue pushing and most begin to contribute. Therefore, it’s better late than never.

  10. I’m an HBCU alum and while I do love Black colleges, once harsh reality in regards to this situation is, most successful black people do connect any tangible aspects of their success, directly to their alma mater. While the colleges certainly provide a great atmosphere for social relations, great professors and a desire to learn, many do not have competitive in college programs and opportunities for people to expand their boundaries. In this sense, most are not receiving cutting edge information and opportunities for growth by the college itself. Additionally, post graduation, most HBCUs have not created really dynamic formal networking events and initiatives to provide grads with once again, tangible opportunities for growth.
    Additionally, in regards to the offerings of HBCUs, too many still have not refocused their degrees to areas of STEM and finance, which are statistically, the fastest growing fields in the world. Keep in mind, everyone has known this for the past 25 years and yet, many HBCUs still have not come around to this.

    Another key point is, as it relates to their business success, how many HBCU alum can attribute it directly to their university? Yes, they may have had a great time in college but when it came down to business links, contract opportunities, introduction to key people and a look into future industries, many can not say it was directly because of an event or program organized by their HBCU.
    However, people from Harvard, MIT and other top schools and even mid tier universities can point out very clear events and programs that set them forward.
    Thus instead of pointing the finger at the alum, we should be asking, what culture and initiatives have the HBCUs put forward to make successful individuals view their college as a way to maintain and enhance their wealth and status.

  11. Great comment and to your point, I’d ask what specific initiative have alumni relations of HBCUs developed to engage former students? I’m not talking about parties, barbecues and fundraising, but more, professional networking for specific fields (does a viable HBCU lawyer network exist), crowdfunding for entrepreneurship, elite level business networks, etc.

    These are the tangible opportunities that an alum can say their alma mater helped to take them to the next level of business, professional life and increased their bottom line.

  12. I agree with the response from Porter about the modifications needed at the HBCU level. However, HBCU graduates should appreciate the quality of the education at HBCUs, as well as the family environment that invest in their students far greater than just academics. There is indeed a concerted effort needed from both perspectives. The graduates of the HBCUs should understand the significant value of investing in the linkage, as well as the HBCUs offering initiatives and/or programs to encourage their graduates to return and invest in their legacy and the institution linkage. As HBCUs and their Alumni Associations develop their strategic plans for years forward they must plan strategically to implement linkage and investment strategies. In the words of the book “Think, Innovate & Execute – Getting It Done”, a HBCU graduate Casteel sends a clear and concise message on doing it. To all HBCU graduates, wealthy or not, send your children, grandchildren and relatives to your alma mater to pay it forward, creating the linkage and making meaningful investments. As a FAMUAN, let us contribute to our alma mater, “FAMU RISING”! CC4FF

  13. NCCU story is so very true. It’s is a shame. Graduated from NCCU but told my children they did not have to attend my school but if they wanted any of my money it would have to be a HBCU which my eldest daughter graduated from Hampton my next daughter graduated from North Carolina A&T and my last daughter graduated from Spelman and I’m now saving money for my grandchildren to go to an HBCU. If they want any of my money.

  14. Wellllll, my great grandfather, grandfather, father & I all attended Da’ House

    Mom Talladega, sister Bennett

    My BFF is a Morgan alum and his daughters Spelman, maybe different but none the less HBCUs.

    We believe in HBCUs! . . .

  15. I am a Graduate of Tuskegee University my son loves Tuskegee University. He wore a Tuskegee University Sweatshirt with hood everyday to High School, but as much as he loves it. Tuskegee University does not offer what he wants to Major in. He loves HBCU but not a one offers what he wants to Major in. His degree goals are unique and very rare Major, but children must do what they are passionate about or it will be a job not a Career.

  16. The challenge is to cultivate being good alumni while students are still undergraduates. The overall student experience should cause the graduate to leave the university with unbound enthusiasm and commitment.

  17. Very good points. The scenario you shared has happened (unfortunately) in other HBCU settings as well. However, let’s come together and fix matters like mentioned for the good of HBCU’s missions.

    In many instances, HBCU alums have had experiences that were not pleasing to them and they did not want their children nor grandchildren to experience. Statistically, HBCU’s are more relevent TODAY than ever before. Let’s create stronger pipelines. 318-332-8254. Wilson!

  18. This is an excellent article as well as an excellent question. In some cases we do not feel validated until we (members of the African American community) are recognized by the majority community. In other cases we feel that our children can “do better” by going to a PWI. As a result, we only expose them to certain institutions.

    I also think that many HBCU grads dont understand the power and impact of legacy and what that means. They leave the final decision to the child, which is not always the smartest move. In other cases they are swayed by ” bright lights” and tales of inclusion and diversity. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood the power of legacy and so does the Eaves family (11 men have graduated from Morehouse College). In addition, there are the Horton’s the Whalum’s and many others.

    It is the responsibility of the graduate to expose the Alma Mater to the next generation. That process starts early.and continues until admission to the HBCU.

    Onward Forward

    Floyd G. Carroll, II
    Morehouse College ’83

  19. I call “pwi’s” TWIN’s “, Traditionally White INsitutjonS. We all need go do better in supporting our HBCU’S. Right Oprah.

  20. Good article and good points. One point for the next look at this issue is to research fiscal responsibility. As an alumna of an HBCU, one that has done ok in fundraising and stewardship and alumae participation, many schools (PWI and HBCU) face issues with their board of directors, alumni participation and fiscal (ir)responsibility. The most recent glaring example was the news about the law suit agaunst the university of Chicago and the Pearson gift.

    Both my husband and I attended HBCUs. With two teenagers nearing college, we’ve encouraged our sons to explore HBCUs but have not considered requiring them to attend one. We’ve exposed them, bought them gear, etc. But, at the end of the day, both have very specific academic and extracurricular interests that don’t naturally align with any HBCU….so we may be the next examples/statistics of alumni who don’t support their alma mater with lineage.

  21. Would you please share the degree program major that your son is interested in? Over the years, I have heard that observation in many similar t situations. However, I have found that 98% of the times it was not true. What I found was degree programs existed at HBCUs but parents nor student was even remotely aware. As a retired university administrator with specialty in academic programs, etc., I still spend considerable time informing people of academic programs and other academic developments at HBCUs that most are not aware that exist. Many of those persons who are HBCU alums are not even aware of new academic programs and developments at their own HBCUs. Dr. H. L. Aubrey

  22. Mr. Bradley, apparently you are not aware of the numerous federal government, foundation, and other research reports documenting the large role that HBCU STEM programs are still playing in producing the next generation of African American STEM scientists, engineers, and other such professionals. Your observations are important. However, they are premised on assumptions but not facts. You would probably be astonished if you had access to some real information regarding what HBCUs are doing in STEM. Let me share a small tidbit of information with you. Try googling the name – Dr. Jalaal A. Hayes. Dr. Hayes earned a Ph.D. in Applied Physical Chemistry at Delaware State University in 2015 at age 22. The National Academy of Sciences has verified that he is the youngest person in American History to earn a Ph,D, in any area of Chemistry. What’s more, he was a United States Department of Energy Doctoral Fellow and is a co-patent owner of a next generation hydrogen energy storage system. In addition, he was invited and presented research papers at three international conferences as well as had research papers accepted for publications in some of the most prestigious international refereed journals in the world. All of the former achievements were completed during his four years of study and research at Delaware State University before defending his Ph.D. dissertation. His undergraduate degree was earned at Lincoln University (PA) at age 18. Lincoln and Delaware State Universities are HBCUs. Of course, your will find far more on this young man if you take some time to googling him. His achievements are all over he internet. He is a world class Research Chemist whose education and research training were all completed at an HBCU.

  23. I agree.

    As a proud alum of an HBCU my question is why descendants of alum, or any student for that matter, are not offered access to take a deeper look at curriculum (transparent invitation to sit in on an a class of interest), campus life (transparent invitation for applying students to buddy with a current student for lunch in caf/ walk around campus, or an over-night in a dorm with a current student), resources (tour of distinguished departments-even research libraries), and contact with distinguished (not necessarily famous) alum.

    These opportunities should be clear on websites and referenced during college info sessions and tours, and at the very least when requested.

    My brilliant daughter, in her research of colleges was afforded this type of access at PWI’s but not at my HBCU. They made it so hard to get a response or follow up request.

    Do they not know that competing PWI’s offer this level of access?
    I was a little embarrassed, but made excuses for struggling by loved HBCU’s.

    By way of a distinguished educator, who knows and advocates for her, she will be able to access this at another (not my own) HBCU. Perhaps, the only one I would consider outaide of my alma mater

    I remain proud and empowered by my own HBCU experience. The chance to have an HBCU among her top three choices is important to me and our ability to sustain the HBCU experience.

    Fingers crossed!

  24. Great Article! As a alum of VSU. I say take the Reginald Lewis name off the school of Business! The man did not support the growth of VSU. He gave VSU the change after giving Harvard dollars. It’s a shame we how to dig for names to put on our business school. People who really didn’t care about the school.

    This is why, say whatever, but Bill Cosby has done more for HBCUs than Oprah, Reginald Lewis, etc. I hope people recognize his contributions to our race as a whole and not get caught up in so mach of the other stuff.

  25. This is such an important discussion. As I read the article I thought- oh, don’t tell Taraji! I hope Oprah doesn’t see this- since she sends a great many of her “daughters” from her Leadership Academy to HBCU’s every year, makes donations and then speaks at the graduations. Maybe the author is disappointed by the choices of the small pool of uber-rich and famous business alums but I am not worried because our top schools struggling to expand their capacity to house and educate the students choosing HBCU’s in record numbers- many of these young people are children of alumni of means and accomplishment. We need to stop talking like young people are not attending HBCUs, and we cannot let the choice of a small subset of alumni’s children stand as the rule for all.

    As a college guidance advisor who works with teens across the nation and abroad, I am seeing that young people are putting a great deal of thought into considering a variety of college options, including HBCUs. With that said, my own daughter recently chose a PWI. I am at peace, however, because we did do the early and often visits and she did have 2 HBCUs in her Final Four. While I am unwilling to compel her to attend any particular school, I do think it is important to ensure that our children are exposed, in great detail, to the benefits and opportunities at best fit HBCUs, just as I think it is important for every student to carefully consider their state schools. I never miss an opportunity to talk about programs, highlights, and unique offerings at my school and have learned about some amazing programs at other great HBCUs. She was very impressed by open house programs at Spelman and Hampton, but we also made the effort to visit other schools on our own because we knew that every school does not offer an open house or her schedule did not always allow it. Ultimately, I do not feel her choice was a shortcoming of the outreach of the school, and I found every HBCU to be very welcoming and warm.

    Now, as a PWI student (with parents who both graduated from HBCUs) she is planning to build relationships and partnerships with Black students on her campus as well as her peers in the HBCUs- she sees her role as a bridge- builder. Which I think is cool (but not the same thing!!) Maybe we should expand our concept of legacy to include supporting schools and working with school even when a student’s studies lead them to make another choice.

  26. First, let us not forget why HBCUs were created. It was to educate the sons and daughters of former slaves and to educate black folks denied an education at the PWI.

    After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, many doors of the PWI were opened to qualified blacks. While many blacks still attended HBCUs after ’64, it seems as though THEIR children were more inclined to attend PWIs for several reasons, of which I have listed below:

    1) Many black students with whom I have spoken, feel that an HBCU education is inferior to that of a PWI. Many doubt their job prospects subsequent to receiving a diploma from an HBCU.

    2)The continuous turnover in top leadership at our HBCU’s does NOT look good to prospective students and their parents. The first thing one thinks, is will the institution survive with unstable leadership. BTW, it is time for the alumni of any given HBCU to take a very closer look at the Board of Trustees, to whom the president has to answer. Some boards are SUPER dysfunctional and call for a re-organization. Nonetheless, what person is going to attend ANY institution, if the prospects of closure are hitting them in the face?

    3)Some PWIs are able to grant a greater number of dollars to minorities, thus, reducing the out-of-pocket expense. Harvard University is one example. With a huge endowment, many black students accepted, will be guaranteed FREE tuition, granted the parental income is less than 65K. For families earning between 65K and 150K, the expected contribution is between zero and 10 percent. Can any of our HBCUs match this? I really do not think so. FUNDING for full tuition is very limited. Why? Due to limited endowments.

    4)Many of our HBCUs and the programs offered at the various schools, seems to be on probation more often than the PWIs. Again, would YOU attend an institution that is on probation?

    Whether famous or non-famous, HBCU alum’s will not send their children to the HBCUs they attended for many of the aforementioned reasons.

    In order to survive, HBCUs will need to hire more Development Officers, whose job is to fundraise 100% of the time. DOLLARS will generate more scholarship opportunities for prospective students who are being lost to PW’s.

    Secondly, we must develop STABLE leadership at the top; focus on developing more STEM programs; and EDUCATE the younger generation with the fact with FACTS about the great programs offered at various HBCUs and the experiences of attending an HBCU.

    With that said, only the strongest HBCU’s will survive in this most difficult climate, and with those that do, must strive to the the BEST in their class!

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