Note: Today’s blog post is co-authored with Nelson Bowman III, the Director of Development at Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU) in Texas. PVAMU is a historically Black university.
If you take a look at many of the fundraising and admissions brochures for our nation’s HBCU’s, one thing becomes clear: Sports and the marching band are valued. There is nothing wrong with having school spirit and valuing athletic competition. Likewise, HBCU’s have boasted amazing marching bands for decades. However, sports and the marching band should be ancillary to academics in truth and image. Although sports are often a window into the college or university experience for potential students, as the NCAA has mentioned in their recent ad campaign, the majority of student athletes “go pro” in something other than sports. All institutions of higher education should emphasize academics first.
Yes, the images of winning football and basketball teams, with all of the glorious colors of the institutions, are engaging, but they should not be the central images in fundraising and admissions materials. Yes, giving tends to increase after an institution wins a championship—but only for one year. The majority of donors, especially African-Americans, give to higher education to support scholarships; donors are not typically motivated by sports images. Giving is stronger when an institution highlights its signature academic programs.
Donors are finicky; they have particular likes and dislikes. If they go to a Web site and don’t see a program that meshes with their interests, they may leave immediately. Likewise, if they go to a Web site or receive a brochure that has more of a focus on sports than academics, they are sometimes left with an image in their mind—“this institution isn’t serious about academics.” In reality, HBCU’s are serious about academics.
Highlighting sports over academics is a marketing issue and one that has a lasting impact. It tends to reinforce stereotypes about African-Americans, implying that they are better at physical activity than intellectual activity. HBCU’s need to work hard to dispel the myths around African-American intelligence and achievement. Emphasizing the great minds at HBCU’s not only empowers future students, it inspires donors, and changes perceptions.