Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs)


    Access to higher education was practically nonexistent for Black Americans prior to the establishment of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). While the Civil War brought freedom to enslaved Black Americans, many socioeconomic challenges endured, and new ones emerged. Having been denied wages and education during slavery, freed slaves were extremely impoverished, and education opportunities were scarce. Traditionally white institutions in the South remained closed to Black Americans until a century following the abolition of slavery, and colleges in the rest of the country introduced quotas limiting the numbers of Black students.

    The first schools for freed slaves were primarily founded by Black churches with aid from the American Missionary Association and the Freedmen’s Bureau. In 1890, the second Morrill act was signed, requiring that all states with segregated education systems provide land grants for institutions aimed at educating Black Americans, which is why most of today’s HBCUs are located in the south of the country.

    » More: The top HBCUs in the country

    Establishment of HBCUs

    The first HBCU, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, was established in 1837, almost 3 decades prior to the abolition of slavery. Between 1865 and 1870, an additional 26 HBCUs had opened. By the 1930s, there were 121, most of them in the Southeastern United States.

    At their inception, HBCUs offered elementary and secondary rather than post-secondary education.

    By the 1900s, HBCUs had started offering postsecondary education. The Higher Education Act of 1965 defines HBCUs as any historically black college or university that was “established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans, and that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association determined by the Secretary [of Education].”

    Today, there are over 100 private and public HBCUs in operation, providing higher education to an increasingly diverse student body. In 2017, 24% percent of students enrolled at an HBCUs were non-Black. Public HBCUs are required to maintain diversity standards in order to retain government funding and accreditation, but there is worry that these shifting demographics will take away from HBCUs’ primary mission: providing an educational safe-space for Black students, where their cultural experiences are centered. Various studies have found that Black Americans who attended HBCUs continue to have better health and economic outcomes long after graduation compared to Black students at predominantly white institutions.

    What makes HBCUs unique?

    Dr Harry L. Williams, Thurgood Marshall College Fund President and CEO, in a TEDx talk at Delaware State University, where he was president for 8 years, says HBCUs’ uniqueness is their mission-driven quality. He describes HBCUs as having a “high-touch approach” and a “culture of caring”. Studies have found that Black students at HBCUs feel significantly more supported and mentored at college than Black students at non-HBCU schools.

    HBCUs always were and continue to be anchor institutions for communities, and hubs of Black excellence.

    HBCUs also have an exceptional ability to graduate low-income students. Over 75% of HBCU students rely on Pell grants, compared to the national average of 31-38%. At the same time, HBCUs are booming — from 2016 to 2018, about one third of HBCUs reported record levels of enrollment, though most other institutions of higher learning saw declines in the same period. HBCUs have also kept tuition fees well below national averages despite being historically underfunded.

    HBCUs always were and continue to be anchor institutions for communities, and hubs of Black excellence. Thurgood Marshall (after whom the Thurgood Marshall College Fund was named), the first Black Supreme Court justice, attended Lincoln University, an HBCU. He went on to finish a law degree at Howard Law, the oldest HBCU law school in the country, where he began formulating the legal strategy that would lead to the striking down of school-segregation laws in the landmark Supreme Court decision known as Brown v. Board of Education. On May 17, 1954, this decision ruled that laws establishing racial segregation in public schools are unconstitutional.

    What former HBCU students say

    Many celebrities have spoken publicly about their experiences at HBCUs, including Kamala Harris, Toni Morrison, Lionel Richie, Spike Lee, and Sean Combs. A common theme touched on by both celebrity and non-celebrity HBCU alumni has been the way attending an HBCU reinforced their sense of pride in Black culture and history, as well as the unique, nurturing approach found at HBCUs. There are countless reasons why students choose to attend HBCUs, but immersion in Black culture is certainly key.

    There are countless reasons why students choose to attend HBCUs, but immersion in Black culture is certainly key.

    Rashad Skinner, a therapist and clinical social worker in Huston, Texas attended Fisk University, an elite liberal arts HBCU in Nashville, Tennessee. He writes: “I went to a predominately white high school and chose an HBCU so that I wouldn’t be constantly reminded of my race as a handicap. At Fisk, I was constantly reminded my race and culture were a strength. I can now honestly say that the grades I received at Fisk were because of my character and work. No one can make the implication I received any special or ‘affirmative action’ treatment because of my skin. Skinner also addresses myths about HBCU alumni being at a disadvantage professionally: “My wife, my friends, and I all attended graduate schools. One of my friends is an alder-woman, another a dentist. My brother-in-law attended Howard has a Ph.D. and now works at Johns-Hopkins. My cousin attended Prairie View A&M and is now an engineer. In short, going to an HBCU has created more opportunities for employment.”

    HBCUs and STEM education

    A significant lack of Black representation in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields has been an ongoing issue. HBCUs are particularly notable for their numbers of Black graduates in STEM subjects— 25% of all Black graduates with STEM degrees attended HBCUs, and almost half of all Black women who completed STEM degrees between 1995 and 2004 did so at an HBCU. The tech industry has taken note of the crucial role HBCUs can play in tackling diversity gaps when adequately funded. To address the underrepresentation of Black professionals in tech, Google announced a $50 million grant to 10 HBCUs in June 2021. Additionally, in May 2021, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that it would invest $17.3 million into creating research opportunities and scholarships, with a focus on BIPOC (Black or Indigenous people of color) students, and HBCUs in particular. Howard University, a leading HBCU located in Washington DC, will receive around $400,000 in support of research into sustainable energy.

    Funding your HBCU education

    In addition to all the general sources of college funding available to students, there are various HBCU-specific scholarship opportunities. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund connects students at 47 HBCUs with merit and need-based scholarships. The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) offers scholarships to Black Americans attending various institutions, including 37 private HBCUs. Many institutions offering general scholarships have HBCU-specific ones, although these are likely to be highly competitive, with only a few offered each year. Certain HBCU scholarships have additional requirements. For example, Beyoncé’s ABOUT LOVE scholarship offers $2 million for students in the arts and creative fields at 5 private HBCUs, while the UNFC’s Frederick Douglas Bicentennial Scholarship Program is specifically for academically gifted senior students who have demonstrated a commitment to community service. Most scholarship applications will require the following:

    • an online application
    • an essay or personal statement
    • a completed FAFSA application
    • recent transcripts
    • letters of recommendation
    • a resume

    HBCU funding inequalities

    In addition to disproportionately high numbers of low-income and first-generation students, HBCUs annually had more female than male students since the mid-1970s. The predominance of Black faculty members at HBCUs is also in sharp contrast to their underrepresentation at all other U.S. colleges, particularly in the South, where almost 18% of undergraduate students at public institutions are Black, in contrast to 9.2% of faculty.

    HBCUs receive 7 times smaller endowments (funds from private and organizational donors) than non-HBCUs

    Despite keeping tuition costs below national averages and being key in the socioeconomic advancement of Black Americans, HBCUs receive 7 times smaller endowments (funds from private and organizational donors) than non-HBCUs. Such resource inequities have been part of the story since the beginning, but more recently, federal funding cuts to education between 2003 and 2015 disproportionately affected HBCUs, with private HBCUs suffering the worst cuts of all education sectors, at 42%.

    President Biden’s proposed social spending bill for 2022 includes $2 billion in infrastructure funding for HBCUs and other so-called minority-serving institutions, such as Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) and tribal colleges and universities. However, this is significantly less than the originally proposed sum of $20 billion that was to be funneled exclusively to HBCUs. Additionally, HBCUs will have to compete for the available funds with the other eligible institutions, which are, in many cases, significantly larger and better-funded. These changes to President Biden’s higher education agenda have incited criticism from both HBCU and HSI representatives, who, among other things, resent being pitted against each other, and being lumped into that single category of “minority-serving institutions”. Dr. Harry L. Williams has released a statement on behalf of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund expressing surprise and disappointment with the latest draft of the bill.

    The central role HBCUs play in the continued social and economic upliftment of Black Americans, and low-income Black Americans in particular, is undeniable.

    Like all institutions of higher learning, HBCUs are also facing challenges resulting from the COVID19 pandemic. In addition to ongoing funding inequities, certain political factions argue against the need for the continued existence of HBCUs. However, the fact remains that more than 50% of the Black American public school teachers and 70% of Black American dentists earned degrees at HBCUs. Furthermore, while representing only 3% of all higher-education institutions in the U.S, 10% of Black American college graduates earn their degrees at HBCUs. The central role HBCUs play in the continued social and economic upliftment of Black Americans, and low-income Black Americans in particular, is undeniable.

    Frequently asked questions

    There are currently over 100 private and public HBCUs, providing higher education to an increasingly diverse student body.

    Yes, there are a variety of HBCU-specific scholarship opportunities, some of which are listed in the article above. Additionally, there are many scholarships for BIPOC individuals. Explore the Degree Choices scholarship tool for more information.

    According to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, Spelman College in Atlanta is the most expensive HBCU.  Tuition at Spelman costs around $30,000, which is still less than the national average of $35,079 for private colleges and universities.

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