Wilberforce University Fundraising Efforts Foundering

historic marker on Wilberforce University campus
[ideastream]

Wilberforce University near Dayton needs to raise $2 million to keep its accreditation. But the “Wilberforce Unite” effort has brought in roughly $478,000, according to its campaign website.

That’s less than a quarter of its goal.

Wilberforce officials refused a request for comment. 

A comeback will be difficult given the school’s troubles, says MaryBeth Gasman, director of the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at Rutgers University and an expert on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

The school has a great history and the goal is attainable for a small institution, Gasman told ideastream via email. But the school’s legacy of financial problems could hinder a turnaround.

“It is tough to mount a strong comeback after years of struggle,” Gasman writes. “People like to give to and be affiliated with success and HBCUs in this situation have to show a lot of success to get people back on board.”

Wilberforce is arguably the nation’s first private HBCU. The school was established in 1856, as a joint venture between African Americans and white Methodists. The school closed during the civil war, but reopened in 1863 when the African Methodist Episcopal Church bought it.

But the school has struggled with financial problems for more than a decade and had four presidents since 2013. Enrollment declined so much, the school’s accreditation was at risk, with Wilberforce under a “show cause order” from the Higher Learning Commission, the regional accrediting body for schools in the Midwest. That sanction was lifted in 2015. 

Under the current president, Elfred Pinkard, enrollment has grown. Last year, Wilberforce had 300 entering students — one of its largest classes in recent years. 

Last year, however, the commission placed Wilberforce on probation because the school lacked the financial resources to support its current educational programs. The school has two years to correct problems.

In June, Wilberforce announced it is merging operations with Central State University across the street. Central State is Ohio’s public HBCU and was once a subdivision of Wilberforce.

Many small colleges are under-resourced, Gasman says, but HBCUs are particularly vulnerable to financial difficulties because they often don’t have the infrastructure needed for aggressive fundraising.

“It takes staff and money to raise money,” she says, adding HBCUs “have to be more assertive about asking for donations and communicating their usage.”

She notes African Americans donate more to charity than any other racial group. 

“HBCUs can benefit from that generosity,” she says. 

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