United Negro College Fund Celebrates 80 Years Of Empowering Black Students Through Higher Education

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The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) was incorporated 80 years ago. In celebration, ESSENCE is honoring the organization’s incredible legacy and looking forward to the next 80 years.

In true birthday fashion, UNCF is celebrating all year long, with an extra special moment on their 80th anniversary date of April 25, 2024. The historic organization was invited to ring yesterday’s “closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange.” Kiara Nicole Brown, a 2023 Howard University graduate served “as the bell ringer” in this unique moment of recognition.

It all started with former president of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute Dr. Frederick Douglass Patterson (who was named after the esteemed abolitionist). In 1943, Patterson penned a column for The Pittsburg Courier, where he proposed that Black colleges form an alliance so they could raise funds that would mutually benefit the consortium. A year later in 1944, UNCF “was founded, with 27 member colleges serving 12,000 students and with an income of $765,000.” Today, this would be the equivalent of $10 million, and was three times over what the member institutions had been able to raise separately the year before.

From the start, prominent Americans including then President Franklin D. Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller, II backed the fledgling organization. Of note, UNCF was the first charity that the wealthy businessman publicly supported, donating $25,000, the modern-day equivalent of $300,000, and writing “letters to fellow businesspeople and philanthropists to garner support for UNCF.”

Almost 30 years later in 1972, UNCF would go on to coin “its iconic ‘A mind is a terrible thing to waste’® motto, which later became one of the most famous advertising slogans in history.” In 2013, an addition was made to include “…but a wonderful thing to invest in.”

Since it was incorporated 80 years ago, UNCF has grown immensely. Today UNCF is the “largest private scholarship provider to students of color” in the US; has increased its member institutions to include 37 HBCUs; “awards more than $83 million in scholarships to more than 10,000 students at more than 1,100 colleges and universities each year;” and has “raised more than $5 billion to help more than half a million students earn college degrees.”

But one thing has remained constant—their mission of ensuring that Black students have access to higher education. Since 1944, UNCF has “helped to more than double the number of minorities attending college.” In total, “[m]ore than 500,000 students have earned college degrees from UNCF-member HBCUs, a total that increases by about 8,000 graduates every year.”

In looking forward to the next 80 years, UNCF remains more important than ever. The achievement gap between minority and white students persists. The rate at which Black students attend and graduate from college is still “much lower than those of other groups.”

Research has demonstrated that UNCF scholarship recipients are more likely to graduate. As the organization notes, “[a]t a time when college opportunity is an indispensable part of our national quest for social and economic justice, the nation needs students of color to be able to go to and through college and on to careers of success and service.

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