WASHINGTON – The United Negro College Fund announced a $25 million grant Friday from Koch Industries Inc. and the Charles Koch Foundation — a large donation from the conservative powerhouse Koch name that Democrats have sought to vilify heading into the 2014 midterm elections.
The UNCF, known for its iconic motto, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste," is seven decades old and supports historically black colleges and universities and provides scholarships.
From the donation, $18.5 million will go toward nearly 3,000 merit-based scholarships to African-American undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral students, and $6.5 million will go toward general support for historically black colleges and universities and the UNCF.
African-Americans are a key constituency within the Democratic Party. But Michael Lomax, president and CEO of UNCF, said that since the organization's inception in 1944, it has reached out to people of all backgrounds for support without an "ideological lens" because it is in everyone's interest to invest in these students. The organization has awarded $100 million in scholarships to more than 12,000 students at 900 schools this year alone, but he said the need is so great that the organization turns away nine out of every 10 applicants, or about 100,000 students annually.
He said that in today's politically charged climate, he's prepared to take criticism from those of different political leanings than the Kochs.
"Criticism is a small price for helping young people get the chance to realize their dream of a college education, and if I've got to bear the brunt of someone else's criticism to ensure that we have the resources to help those students, then I can handle it, and I can take the heat," Lomax said.
Lomax said he and Charles Koch, chairman and CEO of Koch Industries, based in Wichita, Kansas, had lunch together and were able to find that we "shared a profound belief in the importance of education."
"We talked about students. We talked about the kinds of support they need. We talked about the shared belief that there are a lot of talented young people there whose lives will be transformed if they get a chance to complete a college degree," Lomax said.
In a statement, Koch said that "increasing well-being by helping people improve their lives has long been our focus" and that the partnership will provide promising students with new educational opportunities.
"We have tremendous respect for UNCF and we are hopeful this investment will further its effectiveness in helping students pursue their dreams," Koch said.
Historically black colleges and universities, which serve a disproportionately large share of low-income students, have been hit particularly hard by the economic downturn. Among the issues: a lack of healthy endowments, a high unemployment rate among black Americans and tougher credit standards implemented by the Education Department that make it harder to secure a federal Parent PLUS loan used by many of these students' families.
Meanwhile, Lomax said applications to historically black colleges and universities have been going up but enrollment has largely stayed flat because they can't offer more scholarships and grants.
Scholarship recipients in the new "UNCF/Koch Scholars Program" are to be exemplary students with financial need interested in how the study of entrepreneurship, economics and innovation contributes to well-being for individuals, communities and society. They must attend one of UNCF's 37-member private historically black colleges and universities or one of the 250 colleges and universities where the Charles Koch Foundation has an existing program. They will attend an annual summit, have mentorship opportunities and have the ability to participate in an online community.
UNCF said it will hire additional staff to help oversee the program, and the effectiveness of the program will be monitored.
Koch Industries has a history of supporting UNCF dating to 2005, when it acquired the building and consumer products company Georgia-Pacific. Georgia-Pacific supported UNCF going back four decades. Since 1995, Georgia-Pacific and Koch have donated more than $1.5 million to UNCF, according to Koch.
Curley Dossman, president of the Georgia-Pacific Foundation, said it's because of that long-standing relationship that UNCF approached Koch about the new gift and "initiated the dialogue and conversation to address a need that they have."
Charles Koch is a billionaire in his 70s who, along with his brother, David, built the hugely profitable and privately held Koch conglomerate focused on chemicals, textiles, paper and other products from an oil company they inherited from their father. Longtime patrons of libertarian and conservative causes, they are financial backers of Americans for Prosperity, which reported spending millions on elections in 2012. Democrats such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have sought to depict the two men, who support an agenda of low taxes and less regulation, as buying elections to support their own business interests.
This is the fifth-largest gift UNCF said it has received. The largest, $1.6 billion, came from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
About 27 percent of working-age black adults have a two- or four-year college degree, compared to 39 percent of all working-age Americans, according to a recent Lumina Foundation report. The six-year graduation rate in 2011 for black students was nearly 40 percent, compared to the 62 percent rate for white students.