Expert Q&A: The Columbia University HBCU Fellowship
Interview With Dr. Jason Wingard
Can you tell us a little about Columbia University's Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) fellowship?
As has often been cited, there are currently only four African American CEOs leading Fortune 500 companies; there have only been 16 since 1999. Yet, companies with diverse teams perform better, as evidenced by research from McKinsey: Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.
Statistics such as these were at the forefront of my mind when I came to the Columbia University School of Professional Studies, a school that unlike many other more traditional institutions has a distinct "future of work" mindset. The future of work is not just about how technological advances will transform the workplace — it is about a new corporate culture that fosters diversity, inclusivity, and representation to produce better results.
But, we often hear from corporations that they have difficulty finding qualified African Americans to work at their companies. The reality is that, while there is an abundance of students who would be ideal candidates for such positions, many companies do not know where to find them, or how to adjust their cultures to be responsive to the needs of a diverse population. I knew that Columbia could be a leader in bridging that gap. To do that, we needed to look where talent already is: HBCUs were an obvious pool.
According to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, HBCUs produce:
- 40% of all African American members of Congress
- 12.5% of all African American CEOs
- 50% of all African American lawyers
- 80% of all African American judges
To succeed in those careers, though, students need to pursue graduate-level education — both in terms of academic capabilities and in networking to advance in their careers.
The Columbia HBCU Fellowship, now in its third cohort of students, had the goal from the start to build a pool of highly qualified black students for top companies — and to give those students the resources they needed to succeed.
Over the past several years, we have created a direct pipeline of motivated students for our corporate partners, and introduced programming that fosters long-lasting relationships between the two parties.
Here are some of the fundamental components of the program:
At every step, the students are supported, connections are made, and barriers are removed — key considerations for corporations who would like to utilize HBCUs to augment their diversity and inclusion efforts.
Why are fellowships like this important?
To illustrate the importance of these fellowships, I will offer a success story from one of our 2019 HBCU fellows, Shaddae Findley. Shaddae graduated from Prairie View A&M University in 2018 and worked for a while as an auditor with KPMG. She knew she wanted to pursue higher education to advance in her career and was recommended to the Columbia HBCU program, where she chose to work toward an MS in enterprise risk management.
While here studying at Columbia, Shaddae was connected through her advisor to a summer internship with ALS Group, a leading risk management firm that partners with Columbia's enterprise risk management master's degree program. Even before starting that internship, Shaddae authored a report on the top risks of 2020 for the company and was lauded as a "bright, enthusiastic mind" by the CEO.
Our Columbia HBCU Fellowship program facilitates opportunities like that for every single one of the fellows who come through our door.
The most successful HBCU partnerships involve more than simply hiring a person of color to check a box. Leaders must also account for the challenges black students face, including a lack of housing, transportation, mentorship, networks, or clear pathways into leadership. They must also acknowledge that many students lack the privilege that allows for risk-taking and failure.
These are the barriers that the Columbia HBCU Fellowship tries to break down by leveling the playing field for graduate-level students to explore, take risks, excel and eventually get their foot in the door at leading corporations.
Once there, their voices, experiences, and expertise boost the company bottom line and better enable companies to future-proof for the more inclusive years ahead. Not to mention, those employees help recruit more diverse employees, and mindsets, into the workplace.
Do other universities offer similar fellowship programs?
While school systems like University of California offer funding packages and other universities, such as University of Chicago and Emory University, offer HBCU bridge programs, they are frequently term-limited and not connected to specific academic programs. These programs also offer little in the way of support services, such as networking opportunities, career coaching, or guaranteed internships. We view those ancillary services as just as integral to leveling the playing field as an academic pursuit.
How do you see the landscape of HBCUs changing in the next five years?
Over the past decade, many HBCUs have been struggling financially, hindered by huge infrastructure and facilities issues, as well as changes in loan policy and government funding. There are some encouraging signs of financial growth, though: The latest federal data indicate that enrollment at HBCUs is up and more philanthropists are making headline-grabbing gifts to universities like Howard, Miles, and Morehouse.
My hope is that support on a state and federal level continues, but that talented alumni also come back to invest in their alma mater. There is financial power in galvanizing those networks, especially for smaller schools that do not have the name recognition of a Howard University.
I believe we will also see HBCUs solidifying their place as core places for developing STEM talent in the nation. Nearly 65% of black physicians and half of all black engineers operating today graduated from HBCUs. Let us grow that strength and use it as a selling point to attract talented individuals to those campuses — and research funding will follow.