The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the inequities faced by Black Americans into sharp focus

By Dr. Harry L. Williams

President and CEO of Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF)

While the world has been focused on the growing numbers of COVID-19 causalities, the media has somewhat ignored the long-term educational and economic impacts of the pandemic – especially for Black students. Although there has been some attention given to the disparities between Black Americans and other groups contracting the virus, it is not an exaggeration to say that the Black community will be recovering from the impact of COVID-19, health wise, economically, and educationally for at least the next two decades.

Throughout the pandemic, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have been on the front lines addressing the impact the pandemic has had on students, faculty, staff and surrounding communities. In March 2020, when college campuses across the country closed and sent students home, many HBCUs continued to house hundreds of students who did not have homes to return to. Groups of students were stuck on campus without the funds to pay for transportation back to their home cities. This challenge was a byproduct of several students losing the jobs they used to help fund their education, along with loss of family income. Many students became both food and housing insecure without the critical resources that HBCUs often provide.

The Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) worked with our member-schools—America’s 47 publicly-supported HBCUs—and many of their corporate partners to help secure access to needed support for students. Beyond academic scholarships, TMCF stepped up to help provide grants for students, assisting them with rent, groceries, and transportation. At one HBCU, more than half of the students and faculty did not have the adequate computer hardware or broadband internet access to participate in remote classes. Corporate partners supported the purchasing of laptops and hotspots for both students and faculty to facilitate the pivot to online learning. 

Despite their long history and accolades, HBCUs as a collective have continued to struggle with proper funding, receiving less per-student aid from their states, along with less research funding from the federal government. These institutions are highly tuition dependent, which can cause a great challenge anytime enrollment numbers are compromised. Closing campuses and sending students home meant that many schools had to return housing funds that traditionally would have supported the university’s operations. Recognizing the great infringement that the pandemic placed on the schools, we shifted part of our focus of providing scholarships and career readiness opportunities to work with HBCUs to provide support restructuring their finances, securing new resources, and planning for the 2020-21 and 2021-22 academic years.

Part of the shift also included engaging corporate partners to help find new and creative ways to help students succeed in this environment. For example, McDonald’s expanded their partnership with TMCF in 2020 to provide additional scholarships beyond their original commitment for HBCU students. This commitment extended in 2021 to support students who overwhelming were high-achieving performers but came from low-income backgrounds and needed the extra support during this unprecedented time. As a non-profit committed to the advancement of Black students, we understand that the best way to address disparities is to invest in students so they can persist in their studies, graduate, and progress to economically sustainable careers.

We also partnered with our member-schools to provide enhanced mental health resources to help students address the emotional needs that may have emerged as a result of the changing landscape of the world. Among other amenities, TMCF scholars were offered access to Shine, a minority-owned mobile app which offers self-care resources to better manage mental health challenges like stress and anxiety.

The resilience of Black students in the face of the pandemic further illustrates the importance of HBCUs for engaging the Black community. Though the pandemic has presented extraordinary challenges in the last two years, HBCUs have emerged even stronger. While many colleges had steep drops in enrollment during the pandemic, HBCUs experienced the exact opposite. Many of the country’s largest HBCUs are seeing record numbers of applications. The COVID-19 crisis inspired a new approach to working together as a network and building new capabilities in online learning, student retention and attraction, and more. This has only strengthened HBCUs’ unique position to help fill the social and economic gaps Black Americans experience, given these institutions’ assets, experience, and cultural and historical significance.

As a legacy corporate partner, McDonald’s stepped up to support HBCU students because of their longstanding commitment to supporting the Black community and empowering the next generation by creating opportunity through educational initiatives. Today, we call on other major corporations to do the same – address inequities by investing in diverse students, who are posed to be the next generation of changemakers. Their journey to leadership starts with a college degree, and with the proper resources that degree can come from an HBCU. 

Dr. Harry L. Williams is the President and CEO of Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), the largest organization exclusively representing the Black College Community.