On May 10, the world witnessed an incredible moment. Winston-Salem State University honored Elizabeth Barker Johnson, a 99-year-old alumna who graduated in 1949 after serving in the only all-black U.S. Women’s Army Corps deployed to Europe during World War II. She had been unable to participate in her commencement ceremony then because she had already begun teaching; for seven decades, missing that ceremony was one of her deepest-held regrets. As she finally crossed the stage, tears in her eyes, the entire audience rose to its feet to cheer her monumental accomplishment.
This story has swept across America with nearly 25 million people seeing the coverage on television and tens of millions more being introduced to the story in print, on social media and on the web. Johnson’s story resonates with a large portion of the American population. She represents the American Dream: a woman who took advantage of the GI Bill to earn a degree and build a middle-class life for her family. She transformed her life and changed the trajectory for her family.
That this story comes out of an institution like Winston-Salem State University is no surprise. Access institutions like historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have a long history of educating exceptionally promising students from under-resourced families. Millions of Americans have received their educations at these types of institutions and have gone on to lead remarkable lives. I say remarkable, because that is what it is. In a world that is divided by race and socioeconomic class, earning a degree for many means beating the odds. About 21% of African-American and 15% of Hispanic adults have completed a bachelor’s or higher degree compared with 35% of white adults. Meanwhile, high-achieving students from low-income families are less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree than their higher-income peers (54% versus 78%).
This is why it is critical to support the missions of access institutions — both philosophically and financially. Unfortunately, schools that educate large numbers of lower-income and first-generation students receive a fraction of the financial support that wealthy institutions receive. In 2017, HBCUs received just two of the 462 gifts to colleges and universities that were more than $1 million. Put another way, although HBCUs make up 3% of universities in the country, we received just 0.4% of the over $1 million gifts donated in 2017.
Donors who are interested in addressing the wealth gap in our country should be seeing access universities as places where there is enormous opportunity. Schools like WSSU are moving people up the economic mobility ladder and having a positive impact on the wealth gap in America. We are places that change lives.
Like many access institutions, at WSSU, the majority of our students are the first in their families to attend college; 86% receive need-based financial aid; and 60% have zero expected family contributions to their college expenses because of their families’ financial situations. Economically disadvantaged students do not have a safety net. Seemingly small expenses — a flat tire, a fender-bender, a stolen laptop — can force a college student to drop out of school. In a recent semester, 609 students (nearly 10% of our student body) had to take time off of school because they could not afford to return.
The students at access schools are deserving of opportunity. They have found their way to a university that provides an experience that cultivates leadership skills and helps them build confidence to go into the job market prepared to go head-to-head against peers who bring connections and personal networks to the table. They learn in an environment that allows them to discover who they are and what they love in a space that embraces them and tells them there is no ceiling on their ambitions. They see hope for the future and an opportunity to create a life that fulfills them and sets future generations on a course for prosperity. It is a shame that so many run into obstacles that keep success at arm’s length.
If funding disparities between access universities and wealthy colleges do not shift, America will soon only be educating individuals who come from affluent families. The gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” will continue to grow — and our nation will be the worse for it. It is time for donors and policymakers to examine how they can better support schools that are advancing economic opportunity. It’s time for access to be a priority.