HBCUs (short for historically Black colleges and universities) were first established in the mid-19th century with a very specific goal—to provide advanced education to African-American students who were, at the time, barred from entry into most institutions of higher learning.
Though these barriers have since been removed, HBCUs still represent a crucial part of the U.S. higher education system, especially for low-income Black and ethnic minority students. They also represent an increasingly popular choice for wealthier Black and minority group students as well as White students, due to their unique culture and the values they represent.
- 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 colleges and universities 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 specifically 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 school 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 in the U.S., more than 75,000 African-American students were enrolled in private and public Black institutions (including Fisk University, Hampton Institute, Howard University, Spelman College, and the Tuskegee Institute). Another 3,200 were in graduate and professional programs providing training for future teachers, ministers, doctors, and lawyers.
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.
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.
As of 2022, for instance, HBCUs enrolled 10% of Black undergraduates and awarded 20% of baccalaureate degrees earned by Black college students. In addition:
- In the 2020–21 academic year, HBCUs conferred some 48,200 degrees, ranging from associate's degrees to doctor's degrees.
- HBCUs rank very highly when it comes to the number of graduates who go on to pursue professional training.
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.
As of 2021, there were 99 colleges in the United States and U.S. Virgin Islands classified by the U.S. Department of Education as HBCUs. Of those, 50 were public institutions and 49 were private nonprofit institutions.
The combined percentage of Black male and female full-time faculty members at degree-granting postsecondary institutions, as of fall 2020.
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 2020, non-Black students made up 25% of enrollment at HBCUs. HBCUs often offer students more support in their studies, frequently 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:
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 and finishing college than their colleagues at other schools. HBCUs are regarded as having special expertise when it comes to educating lower-income students. And HBCUs have a reputation for making the most of their often-limited resources, which helps make them more affordable.
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 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 28% lower than at comparable non-HBCUs . Yet the quality of the education they provide is on a par with that of more expensive institutions.
Even so, HBCU graduates "have an average debt load of $32,373 after graduation—19% higher than peers at non-HBCUs," according to the Center for Responsible Lending. In part, that's because HBCUs often lack the financial resources to provide institutional aid to their students.
In 2021, the Department of Education took a step toward addressing that imbalance by discharging some $1.6 billion in debt owed by 45 HBCUs. The Biden Administration has also proposed providing up to $20,000 in student loan forgiveness to Pell Grant recipients (typically undergraduates with the greatest financial need), many of whom attend HBCUs.
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 pillars of the Black community, and the history of Black colleges shows that they often worked side-by-side with those 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 strictly academic subjects. Many of the most inspiring leaders of the 20th century—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., among others—attended Morehouse College, an HBCU, and the values they learned there can be discerned in their work.
How Does the Government Define an HBCU?
According to the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, an HBCU is: "…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] to be a reliable authority as to the quality of training offered or is, according to such an agency or association, making reasonable progress toward accreditation."
What Is a Predominantly Black Institution (PBI) and How Is It Different From an HBCU?
Federal law defines a Predominantly Black Institution, or PBI, as one with "an enrollment of undergraduate students that is not less than 40% Black American students" and also meets these three criteria:
- "An eligible institution with not less than 1,000 undergraduate students"
- "At which not less than 50% of the undergraduate students enrolled at the eligible institution are low-income individuals or first-generation college students, and"
- "At which not less than 50% of the undergraduate students are enrolled in an educational program leading to a bachelor's or associate's degree that the eligible institution is licensed to award by the state in which the eligible institution is located."
While PBIs and HBCUs both serve largely minority populations, HBCUs have that as their stated mission and were, for the most part, founded earlier.
What Is a Minority Serving Institution (MSI)?
A Minority Serving Institution (MSI) is an umbrella term for institutions of higher education whose mission is to serve a particular minority or ethnic group. HBCUs are considered MSIs, as are Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and Asian American and Pacific Islander Serving Institutions (AAPISIs).
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 can offer the social support they require at an affordable price. And students from other backgrounds also benefit from the diverse and dynamic environment that HBCUs have to offer.