Historically Black Colleges and Universities
The History of HBCUs and Why They’re Still Important Today
Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have an important role in the African American community as schools that first gave black students the opportunity to obtain higher education when virtually no other colleges would. Today, HBCUs are still an integral part of the black higher education experience in the United States, and this guide takes a look at the importance of these colleges both in the past and present, as well as where they’re headed in the future.
Understanding Historically Black Colleges and
What is an historically black college or university (HBCU)?
An historically black college or university is a higher learning institution that was established before 1964 with the mission of meeting the educational needs of black students.
Why were HBCUs created?
After the Civil War, HBCUs were created to meet the educational needs of black students who previously had negligible opportunities to attend college. These schools have humble beginnings, with the first HBCUs conducting classes in people’s homes, as well as church basements and old schoolhouses. The Morrill Act of 1890, which required states to provide land-grants for colleges to serve black students, allowed HBCUs to build their own campuses.
Many people are not aware that HBCUs were founded, not only for free and newly freed blacks, but also for low socioeconomic populations. These populations included whites not able to attend state supported schools. HBCU mission statements show their ability and desire to educate those that were denied higher education, both by law and by practice.
Why are these schools called “historically” black?
The designation of HBCU was created by the Higher Education Act of 1965. This law defines these schools as “any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans.”
Why do these schools still exist?
“HBCUs are probably even more important today than ever before. These institutions were created to allow recently emancipated slaves an opportunity to pursue higher education. While times have changed, HBCUs remain relevant,” said Elwood L. Robinson, chancellor of Winston-Salem State University. “Our value is in the ‘HBCU experience.’ We provide a culture of caring—a culture that prepares students to contribute to their communities, a culture that builds confidence, and that gives them the essential skills they need to cultivate a career. That is a culture that is good for everyone and can help bridge the academic achievement gap that exists in America today.”
Where are HBCUs located?
Prospective students who are looking for historically black colleges or universities can use the map below to locate these schools.
Myth vs. Reality: The Current State of Historically Black Colleges
Despite being a part of the educational landscape for many years, historically black colleges and universities are misunderstood and have several myths circulating about them that people still believe to this day. The following are some of these myths and why they are not an accurate reflection of the HBCU experience.
Myth #1: HBCU enrollment is declining
Due to some reports by news outlets like Forbes that outline enrollment decreases at some HBCUs, there is a popular misconception that these schools as a whole are all seeing similar declines. But this simply is not true: Not only are HBCUs seeing an uptick in enrollment, it has actually been on the rise in recent years—in part because of the racial unrest that can be seen at predominantly white institutions, or PWIs. Most notable was a series of incidents that occurred at the University of Missouri—including black student organizations having their meetings disrupted, students being called racial slurs, and a swastika made of feces being drawn on the wall of a residence—that led to student protests around campus.
According to Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, incidents like this that have occurred at campuses around the country have led black students to seek out HBCUs to experience an environment where they feel more comfortable. In fact, this phenomenon, which Kimbrough dubbed the “Missouri Effect” in an article in The Washington Post, has led to the following increases in HBCU enrollments in 2016:
- Central State University, 22 percent
- Delaware State University, 19 percent
- Dillard University, 22 percent
- Florida Memorial University, 20 percent
- Shaw University, 49 percent
- South Carolina State, 39 percent
- Tuskegee University, 32 percent
- Virginia State University, 30 percent
Many HBCUs—public and private—are seeing a large increase in freshmen enrollment, reversing a long trend. Here at Winston-Salem State University, we’re building a new freshmen residence hall to accommodate the growing number of first-time students. Since fall 2016, we’ve contracted with off-campus apartments to handle the influx of new students. For the upcoming fall, we’re seeing a 10 percent increase in applications for new freshmen and a 15 percent increase in applications for transfer students.Elwood L. Robinson
Myth #2: HBCUs lack quality education and degree offerings.
HBCUs provide the same level of quality education as other institutions. For example, the United Negro College Fund reports that 20 percent of all African-American college graduates around the country received their degree from a historically black college or university—despite these schools only making up about three percent of the nation’s colleges. In addition, HBCUs produce 25 percent of all the African-American graduates with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics degrees.
Academic rigors can be found at an HBCU and students’ degrees are just as important as anyone else’s who does not attend an HBCU. Students can expect to be pushed and mentored by some of the best minds around. Chad Dion Lassiter
Myth #3: HBCUs are too expensive.
With the student loan debt of college graduates skyrocketing in recent years, all students are concerned about getting a quality education without breaking the bank. Those who enroll in historically black colleges and universities get this bang for their college bucks because, according to U.S. News and World Report, HBCUs that are members of the United Negro College Fund generally charge $6,000 less in tuition—which can go a long way toward keeping costs down.
Collegiate education is under the microscope and students want return on investment in our current economic environment. Financially, HBCUs make sense. Howard University is touted as one of the top historically black institutions ($25,000 per year) along with Spelman ($28,000), Hampton ($25,000) and North Carolina A&T ($19,000) to name a few.Kendrick Kenney
Myth #4: HBCUs lack diversity.
Despite being named historically black colleges and universities, it’s actually incorrect to assume that only black students attend these schools. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics of the U.S. Department of Education, non-black enrollments in 2016 were 23 percent—up from 15 percent in 1976. Also, the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education issued a report detailing the 2011 undergraduate enrollment trends of HBCUs. In the study, the racial breakdown of students was as follows:
- 76 percent Black/African American
- 13 percent white
- 1 percent Asian, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander and American Indian or Alaska Native
- 3 percent Hispanic/Latino
Also, according to U.S. News and World Report, Bluefield State College further dispels the myth that only black students attend HBCUs because that school actually has a student body that was made up of 85 percent white students in 2013. Similarly, West Virginia State University had about 61 percent white students during that year.
A lot of people believe that HBCUs are not diverse. HBCUs are the perfect snapshot into the African diaspora. Students come from around the globe to attend HBCUs. My classmates were from Jamaica, Bahamas, Ghana, Nigeria, and from all over the United States. More importantly, not every HBCU student is black. Asian, Hispanic and white students all attend HBCUs.Kimberly M. Brown
Myth #5: HBCUs don’t have the resources to adequately support students.
Although HBCUs don’t necessarily have the same endowments as predominantly white institutions, it does not mean these schools do not have the resources needed to support students. On average, these schools receive $27.7 million in federal Title IV funding. Also, several schools—such as Spelman College, Morehouse College, Hampton University, Tuskegee University, Xavier University of Louisiana, Meharry Medical College, and Howard University—receive $100 million in endowments.
Myth #6: HBCUs don’t prepare students for success.
Students who graduate from HBCUs are thriving. According to a survey conducted by Gallup-Purdue University, 55 percent of black students who completed their degrees at HBCUs reported that the school prepared them for life after graduation, as compared to 30 percent of students who did not attend HBCUs. Similarly, 51 percent of black HBCU graduates surveyed said they were doing well financially, while only 29 percent of their non- HBCU counterparts could say the same.
The struggle many students have is they don’t understand that college is really about two things: networking and resources. Taking advantage of resources is pivotal when attending these colleges and universities. Students must be diligent in using every resource from computers, labs, and specialized equipment. The second thing is networking and not just with each other. Your professors’ network is your network. Students should maximize office hours and focus on fostering relationships with faculty. Many faculty members are known in your specialized industry or major. I think HBCUs do a good job of getting these two things right, which in turn helps the students have success after graduation.Kendrick Kenney
Myth #7: HBCUs are just party schools.
“This myth may be from the numerous outstanding bands and ‘classics’ held for football games. While it is true that almost every football game is a ‘classic’ or ‘event,’ it is also true that these games are the primary athletic funding sources for the entire university. Since endowments at the majority of these schools are less than a fraction of say, the University of Virginia’s, the football games at HBCUs are advertised as events to gain outside sponsors and corporate funding,” said Jerry Crawford, an Associate Professor at the University of Kansas whose research specializes in HBCUs.
Myth #8: HBCU degrees are not the same as those from other universities.
“This myth is a carryover from when many HBCUs, founded as ‘normal colleges,’ were teaching students with little or no previous education at all and the schools were, in effect, high schools,” said Crawford. That was more than 100 years ago and many still think HBCUs are not rigorous, when in fact, many are featured among other competetive predominantly white institutions.
Alumni Advice: Why I Chose to Attend an HBCU
Just as students from other schools, HBCU alumni have diverse experiences and career paths, but they share one thing in common: a love and appreciation for their respective alma maters. To provide a look at the experiences of HBCU graduates, we spoke to the following alumni, who shared why attending an HBCU was the right choice for them.
- Chad Dion Lassiter, Johnson C. Smith University alumni
- Kimberly M. Brown, Fisk University alumni
- Quandra Chaffers, Spelman College alumni