McKinsey’s work to bolster HBCUs brings recognition from the White House

When McKinsey partner Ryan Golden began working to support Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), she never thought that three years later, she’d win an award from the White House and meet with President Joseph R. Biden.

“When we first started this work, I knew that it had a lot of potential to be high impact,” says the Atlanta-based partner. “But I never expected this recognition from the White House.”

Established in the 19th century to provide educational opportunities for African American students who were denied access to other institutions, HBCUs have remained critical platforms for the education and advancement of students of color ever since.

McKinsey served HBCUs in the wake of COVID-19 to support their operations, which led to a major opportunity: working with the President’s Board of Advisors (PBA) on HBCUs on a pro bono basis.

Below, Ryan shares a debrief from her trip to the White House, what led to meeting the President, and the award.

What is your area of focus at McKinsey?

I’m a partner in our public, social and healthcare practices. My client work focuses on supporting universities and other educational organizations to improve student outcomes, which means partnering with these institutions to help them increase graduation and retention rates, grow student enrollment, and become financially sustainable.

McKinsey's work on the PBA’s first report to the President has been immeasurable and will be central to what we believe are excellent recommendations.

Delaware State University President Dr. Tony Allen

What is the special role of HBCUs?

HBCUs are mission-driven institutions with a proud history and a rich legacy of achievement. They confer 17 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded to Black students in the United States, driving economic mobility for its graduates who often move into higher-income quintiles post-graduation.

HBCUs are also key to developing talent and have educated prominent and esteemed scholars, business leaders, entertainers, and public servants, graduating 40 percent of all Black engineers; 40 percent of all Black US Congress members; 50 percent of all Black lawyers; and 80 percent of all Black judges.

Tell us about the firm’s work with HBCUs.

We began serving HBCUs in 2020 in the wake of COVID to bolster their financial stability and critical operations in the early days of the pandemic. This led to a partnership between the United Negro College Fund, Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the Partnership for Education Advancement, and McKinsey. Together, we launched a project to systematically improve and share best practices across the HBCU network of over 100 institutions.

How did the invitation to the White House come about?

We worked with Delaware State University (DSU) on their strategic growth aspirations, including supporting them as they became the first HBCU to acquire another institution. DSU President Dr. Tony Allen was later appointed the chair of the President’s Board of Advisors on HBCUs.

Dr. Allen brought us into a partnership with the PBA to help accelerate their efforts to advance educational equity and economic opportunity for the nation’s HBCU students. Our firm committed to support the PBA pro-bono—an example of McKinsey’s unwavering dedication towards racial equity.

Through the McKinsey Institute for Black Economic Mobility, we developed a fact base and view on trends in the higher education sector. This helped the PBA develop a key recommendation to the President on how to best accelerate HBCUs on a trajectory of resiliency and long-term sustainable growth.

As a result of this pro bono work, we were awarded the Vista Prize for Public Leadership, with Dr. Allen noting: “McKinsey's work on the PBA's first report to the President has been immeasurable and will be central to what we believe are excellent recommendations. To have your expertise by our side was a tremendous lift to our efforts.”

Dr. Allen asked that I join the PBA for the discussion at the White House—a true testament to the credibility we’ve built in this space and our investment in meaningful client relationships.

How was the experience of meeting the President and Vice-President?

In the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing of the White House, our group met with President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Domestic Policy Advisor Neera Tanden, and the White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. Tanden commended our research on the linkage between education and Black economic mobility. The dialogue with the President and Vice President was equally substantive and included recognition for the research and work underpinning the PBA’s recommendations.

At the meeting’s mid-point, the press were allowed in and cameras began rolling. During his remarks, Dr. Allen mentioned the Board’s partnership with our firm, the McKinsey Institute for Black Economic Mobility and the quality of our work. I know that he really values our partnership, but I did not expect him to say that in that moment, sitting next to the President, on such a public stage.

After the meeting, I had the opportunity to individually meet with both the President and Vice President—dialogue and exchanges that I will never forget. Later that evening, I received the Vista Prize with colleagues Charag Krishnan, Christopher Copeland, Ian Jefferson, Fiyin Oladiran, Ian Jefferson and Nora Gardner at a formal award ceremony.

It was a true “McKinsey-only” moment, an unforgettable experience that inspired me and the team to keep working for transformative outcomes.

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