HBCUs (short for historically Black colleges and universities) were first established in the mid-19th century with a very narrow goal—to provide advanced education to African American students who were, at the time, barred from entry into most existing universities and colleges. 

Though these barriers have since been removed, HBCUs still represent a crucial part of the U.S. higher education system, especially for Black and ethnic minority students. HBCUs focus on offering an education to groups that can find it difficult to afford the cost of historically White colleges and universities. But they also represent an increasingly popular choice for wealthier Black and minority-group students and White students, due to their unique culture and the values they represent.

Key Takeaways

  • HBCUs, or historically Black colleges and universities, were set up to provide Black people in the U.S. with a way to gain a higher education.
  • These colleges and universities have helped to improve equality in the nation.
  • Today, attending an HBCU offers many advantages for Black and non-minority students alike.

The History of HBCUs

In 1861, before the start of the Civil War, Black people in the U.S. were pretty much unable to obtain a higher education because virtually all American universities and colleges at that time barred them from entry. (The exception: Oberlin College, founded by abolitionists, began admitting Black students in 1835.)

In 1837, the first institution of higher education for African-Americans, the Institute for Colored Youth, was founded in Pennsylvania. Richard Humphreys, a Quaker philanthropist, donated a tenth of his total estate to build the ICY in order to educate those of African descent.

Two more Black institutions of higher learning were subsequently established: Lincoln University, also in Pennsylvania, in 1854, followed by Wilberforce University in Ohio in 1856. Wilberforce has survived a particularly tumultuous history; the school was shut down during the Civil War due to financial losses, but was later purchased by the AME Church. A bishop at the AME Church, Daniel Payne, became the first African American university president in the United States that same year.

Although these three institutions showed that it was possible to offer a college education to Black people, progress was slow. In 1896, the Supreme Court created a "separate but equal" precept in American education in Plessy v. Ferguson. The Plessy decision was a turning point. It spurred the growth of existing HBCUs and led to the founding of more.

By 1953, more than 32,000 African American students were enrolled in private Black institutions (including Hampton Institute, Howard University, and the Tuskegee Institute) in the U.S. Even more students—over 43,000—were in public black colleges at that time and 3,200 were in graduate education.

Concerns remained, though, that HBCUs were still under-funded, and that historically White institutions were only slowly desegregating. That started to change with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ensured equal opportunity in programs that received assistance from the federal government. The act also resulted in the creation of the OCR (Office for Civil Rights), which worked into the 1970s to eliminate school segregation.

Today, there are 101 colleges in the United States and U.S. Virgin Islands that are defined by the U.S. Department of Education as HBCUs. You can find the complete list here.

HBCUs Today

Over the past century, HBCUs have helped to narrow the wage gap by race and reduce race and income inequality. Much remains to be done in both of these areas, but HBCUs have carved out an important place in U.S. higher education. 

Today, for instance, HBCUs enroll 20% of Black undergraduates and award 40% of baccalaureate degrees earned by Black college students. In addition:

  • HBCUs rank very highly when it comes to the number of graduates who pursue professional training. 
  • Two Black institutions—Meharry Medical College and Howard University—have given degrees to more than 80% of Black Americans in the medical field.
  • Seventy-five percent of all African Americans who hold a doctoral degree received their undergraduate training from an HBCU.

HBCUs have also benefited from enhanced federal support over the past few decades. Former President George H.W. Bush recognized the value of these colleges, and noted that “at a time when many schools barred their doors to Black Americans, these colleges offered the best, and often the only, opportunity for a higher education.” In April 1989, President Bush issued Executive Order 12677 to strengthen HBCUs and to mandate that federal agencies take measures to increase the participation of HBCUs in the broader American educational system.

In 2018, there were 101 HBCUs located in 19 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Of the 101 HBCUs, 51 were public institutions and 50 were private nonprofit institutions. 

50%

The percentage of Black faculty at predominantly White universities who received their bachelor's degree from an HBCU.

The Benefits of HBCUs

Although HBCUs were set up to provide Black students with the opportunity to attend college, these schools have become an increasingly popular choice for students of all backgrounds—indeed, in 2018, non-Black students made up 24% of enrollment at HBCUs. They offer students more support in their studies, often at a significantly lower cost than other colleges. Here are other ways in which choosing an HBCU can enhance the value of a higher education:

Nurturance

For students who are at risk of not completing college, HBCUs offer a nurturing, caring environment. Minority campus staff and faculty members at HBCUs often have greater insight into the difficulties of attending college than their colleagues at other schools. HBCUs are regarded as having special expertise when it comes to educating lower-income students. And HBCUs spend about two thirds of the total revenue per student that most other universities in the United States spend, which helps make them more affordable for students from lower income families to enroll.

Inclusion

Students of color feel more at home, and are more likely to succeed, when they attend schools where they feel supported and welcomed. For many students from Black and minority backgrounds, that means attending an HBCU will lead to better educational outcomes.

A recent Gallup-Purdue poll found that HBCU graduates were likelier to have felt supported while they were attending college than their Black peers who attended and graduated from predominantly White educational institutions. Diversity can have benefits for students from majority backgrounds as well, because it allows them to get to know minority students and become more knowledgeable about their cultures and the adversities they can face in society.

Impact and Cost

Tuition rates at HBCUs are nearly 30% lower than at other institutions . Yet the quality of the education they provide is comparable to that of more expensive institutions. Perhaps this is why, pre-COVID, the hiring rate for HBCU alumni had climbed by nearly 6%. Their lower cost—which eliminates or reduces student debt, especially for low- and middle-income families—can help narrow the racial wealth gap between Blacks and Whites.

Values

Finally, there are the values that HBCUs often strive to represent and foster. Many HBCUs are rooted in community and working for the greater good. Black churches have long been active pillars of the Black community, and the history of Black colleges reveals that they often worked side-by-side with Black churches. This history goes back to the late 1800s, when many Black colleges were either funded or founded by Black churches (such as the prior referenced collaboration between AME Church and Wilberforce University).

This means that attending an HBCU offers an education in values as much as it does in more academic subjects. Many of the most inspiring leaders of the 20th century—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., among others—attended HBCUs, and the values they learned there can be discerned in their work.

The Bottom Line

Much still needs to be done to offer a truly fair educational system for Black students in the U.S., and HBCUs remain at the forefront of this fight. These institutions were founded with a particular goal in mind, and today they continue to serve the Black community, from reducing the racial gap in financial literacy to seeking to improve Black representation in government.

For students from minority backgrounds, HBCUs offer the support they require at an affordable price. And students from wealthier backgrounds also benefit from the truly diverse and dynamic environment that HBCUs offer. Ultimately, HBCUs offer an education in the values we will all need if we are to finish their mission of overcoming racial prejudice in the U.S.