The Best of HBCU Innovation

When I started with The Plug in June 2021, I had one guiding principle for building this HBCU innovation beat: I wanted to do right by HBCUs. I knew that I was covering a group of institutions that, despite their outsized importance, were woefully undercovered and when they were written about, were often misrepresented. 

Over the past year and a half, I have covered a wide range of research and innovation coming from HBCUs. These are a few of my favorite stories:  

EXCLUSIVE: HBCU Endowments Grew By More Than One Billion Dollars in 2021

My two data analyses have become the go-to database for HBCU endowment information, cited by researchers from the Kapor Center and UNCF officials. This reporting required me to take 20 hours of coding lessons and have multiple calls with the Department of Education in order to sift through complicated financial documents, but I’m proud that it’s been able to be used so widely. 

Last July, MacKenzie Scott Gave $150 Million to HBCUs. Here’s Where That Money Has Gone.

Last December, MacKenzie Scott Gave More Than $400 Million to HBCUs. Here’s Where That Money Has Gone.

After Scott’s historic giving to HBCUs in 2020, I knew it was important to follow up on the impact of her cumulative $560 million donation. While some schools were reticent to talk to me, most were very willing to open up about the massive impact of the donations and gave me detailed responses to what they were able to accomplish with the money. There are no articles this comprehensive from other news organizations following up on her giving to HBCUs, which seems strange to me considering how monumental the giving was.

How the Supreme Court Decision on Affirmative Action Could Impact HBCUs

With this piece, I was able to dig into an angle of the affirmative action case that has not been explored enough: how HBCUs could be targeted next. At first glance, the challenges against race-conscious admissions may not seem like they have direct implications for HBCUs, but there are potential positive and negative impacts.

Analysis: One of the Biggest HBCU Efforts Going Unnoticed

This analysis dives into what I believe is one of the biggest stories brewing in the HBCU community right now: there is a massive push to get a school to finally achieve R1 status. Everyone from the executive director of the White House HBCU Initiative to lawmakers to HBCU presidents is aggressively working towards having an HBCU reach this coveted status and hundreds of millions of dollars are being poured into the effort.

A Debt-Free Morehouse Education: President David Thomas Explains His Vision for the Future

Last March I sat down with Morehouse President Thomas for an in-depth, wide-ranging conversation. Having this on the record and available for everyone to see is important so that students, faculty and other people in the HBCU community can get a better understanding of their leaders’ visions. (I also have done two more profiles of the presidents of Paul Quinn and Clark Atlanta).

For More Than 20 Years, Mississippi HBCUs Have Gotten Millions From The State. What Happens Now That The Funding Is Ending?

This article is one that took me weeks to report out, requiring multiple interviews and tracking down, then sorting through reams of Mississippi state finance reports as well as Supreme Court opinions and records, but it is one of the pieces I am most proud of. As HBCUs in states like Maryland and Tennessee have agreed to multi-million dollar payouts from their state governments, I think it is important to look at examples from the past to make sure that the funding now is effective at improving the schools and lives of future generations.

Research Preview: Black Students More Likely To Graduate With a STEM Degree If They Go To an HBCU

I got the idea for this piece from attending a seminar during the 2021 White House HBCU Week, where I heard this little nugget of information that I wouldn’t otherwise have known without tuning in. These findings are monumentally important, particularly as the U.S. is in the aftermath of the racial reckoning that has pushed companies to diversify their talent. Data like this just solidifies the case that people in the HBCU community have always known: Black talent has always been around. It’s not a pipeline problem, but where companies are looking that’s the problem.

How One HBCU Is Working To Grow Plants On Mars

With this piece, I was able to combine my personal love for plants and gardening and my interest in HBCU innovation. Winston-Salem State University is the only HBCU with an astrobotany lab, and though the research they are doing is in collaboration with NASA, it could be transferable to places here on Earth where traditional agricultural practices may not work.

‘It’s Black Abundance’: Author and MacArthur Fellow Kiese Laymon Brings Major Initiative to Jackson State

This piece explored the HBCU angle to a national story when the 2022 MacArthur Fellows were announced. Kiese Laymon is an acclaimed author who is using the fame of the MacArthur “Genius” prize to bring attention to a literary arts program that he moved from the predominantly white University of Mississippi to Jackson State University. 

Mirtha Donastorg

Mirtha Donastorg is a corps member with Report for America and The Plug's HBCU Innovation Editor and Senior Reporter, exploring start-up initiatives and innovations coming from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, as well as the way students are shaping the future of tech. She previously worked as an associate producer and a researcher for CNN.