Author: Eric Stirgus         Published: 01/29/2020     AJC

An Atlanta-based utility giant has committed $50 million to historically black colleges and universities in Georgia and five other Southern states, which students and supporters say is a much-needed investment in schools often overlooked by major businesses and philanthropists.

Southern Co., which owns and operates Georgia Power, said Tuesday the money will go to scholarships, internships, leadership development, and access to technology. The first round of funding will be awarded by the fall 2021 semester. There are nine accredited HBCUs in Georgia.

“This investment is a statement of our belief that America needs these HBCU graduates in order to ensure a thriving economy for generations to come,” Thomas A. Fanning, the company’s chairman, president and CEO, said in a news release. “We invite others to partner with us to create the scholarships, internships, and opportunities to train the leaders of tomorrow.

Morehouse College graduates walk to Morehouse’s 132nd commencement ceremony, Sunday, May 15, 2016, in Atlanta.
Photo: Branden Camp/Special to the AJC

HBCUs receive less money in gifts and grants than predominantly white institutions, statistics show. Private gifts and grants to the nation’s 101 HBCUs totaled $338.6 million during the 2016-17 school year, according to federal data. The total, though, is a fraction of giving to all American colleges and universities, which totaled $43.6 billion in 2017, according to an annual study by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. HBCUs — with smaller enrollments and a greater percentage of low-income students who struggle to pay for college — have historically had smaller budgets and a critical need for donations.

More businesses are feeling pressure to support HBCUs. Some have stepped up, but not enough, HBCU supporters say. Apple in 2015 launched a $40 million scholarship program. JPMorgan Chase last year announced an effort to expand partnerships with HBCUs and hire 4,000 black students for apprenticeships, internships and post-graduation roles over the next five years.

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Former Morehouse College President John S. Wilson Jr. applauded Southern’s plan, but said “great, great care should be devoted to ensure a justifiable return on the investment.” Wilson, a former executive director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs, wondered what impact the investment will have, noting there are more than 50 HBCUs in the states that may wind up sharing the $50 million investment. In addition to Georgia, the money would benefit black colleges in Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

Members of the Spelman College Glee Club
Photo: For the AJC

Wilson, now a senior adviser and strategist to the president of Harvard University, urged business leaders to make deep, longstanding commitments to HBCUs.

Chris Womack, Southern’s executive vice president and president of external affairs, said in an interview the company thought this was the “right time” to make this commitment.

“There’s a need for greater diversity in the workforce, not only for our company, but other companies as well,” he said. “There’s a large number of students we can focus on that can work for us, or other high-tech companies.”

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Several students at Clark Atlanta University, which has the largest enrollment of any HBCU in the city with about 4,000 students, hope Southern’s announcement encourages other investments.

First-year student Quincy Thompson, 18, said he talks to his mother about the financial future of HBCUs and students struggling to pay tuition and expenses.

“It’s a great chance for HBCU students who don’t have the right resources,” said Thompson, a business administration major from Portland, Oregon.

Alexis Bussey, 18, a first-year student majoring in biology from Tallahassee, Florida, stressed the importance of scholarships. She has four, which pay for most of her tuition.

“It’s more of an opportunity for us as black students who come to HBCUs instead of (predominantly white institutions),” said Bussey.

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