• October 22, 2014

Students' College Dreams Can't Wait

If we don’t agree on everything then we won’t work together on anything.

That seems to be the prevailing point of view in Washington today. As the president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund, the nation’s largest higher-education organization serving students of color, I cannot afford to adopt that philosophy.

When UNCF has to deny nine out of 10 deserving and qualified applicants the chance for a better future due to insufficient resources, waiting for policy makers who are paralyzed by partisanship to improve this searing state of affairs is simply not an option. Our nation is facing an educational crisis, and students with dreams of a college education are counting on us.

Last week my organization received a $25-million investment from longtime supporters Koch Industries and the Charles Koch Foundation. Their generous grant will provide nearly 3,000 merit-based scholarship awards for African-American undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students, and offer $4-million in financial support for the 37 UNCF-member historically black colleges and universities that were devastated by funding shortfalls as a result of federal changes to the Parent PLUS loan program. Those colleges lost $155-million in revenue in 2012-13 alone.

Despite the Kochs’ significant commitment to supporting our mission to help students of color attend and graduate from college, some people have criticized UNCF for accepting this gift from donors who also support conservative causes. It is important to set the record straight.

The United Negro College Fund’s relationship with Koch Industries goes back nearly a decade to when Koch acquired Georgia-Pacific, the Atlanta-based company which has been donating to UNCF for over 40 years. Since that time, Koch has been a strong supporter of UNCF through scholarship and program funding. We were grateful for its support then, and we’re grateful for its support now.

The benefits of a college degree, especially for the students UNCF has served over the course of our 70-year history, are undeniable. Based on findings from the fund’s Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute, a $5,000 award to a freshman at a UNCF-member college increases her likelihood of re-enrolling her sophomore year from 60 to 90 percent and increases her probability of graduating by 7 percent. Furthermore, a $5,000-a-year scholarship investment can reduce a student’s debt level upon graduation by $20,000.

Just think, if we could increase the national average graduation rate for African-Americans by 7 percent, we would graduate close to 16,000 more African-Americans with bachelor’s degrees—and better futures—each year. The UNCF/Koch Scholars Program is specifically designed to put that research to work.

The program is particularly relevant today because the fields of study it promotes—entrepreneurship, innovation, and economics—are specifically meeting students’ demand for a strong background in business. In fact, 25 percent of UNCF-supported students major in a business-related field because they aspire to join a successful company or start their own business.

To those who criticize this donation, let me remind you: Seventy years ago one of the nation’s wealthiest and most influential businessmen, John D. Rockefeller Jr., chaired one of UNCF’s first annual fund-raising campaigns. With the business tycoons Robert Woodruff, Richard K. Mellon, and Alfred P. Sloan, Rockefeller called on the nation’s richest individuals to support our mission. We have been actively engaging with America’s most successful business leaders ever since.

At UNCF, we believe that we do not have to agree on everything in order to work together to help deserving students achieve their dream of a college degree. Rather than enter into protracted debate about this donation, I will stay focused on making our updated motto a reality: "A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but a wonderful thing to invest in."

Michael L. Lomax is president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund.

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