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Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Everything You Need to Know

You can’t tell the story of higher education in America without discussing historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). As the name suggests, HBCUs are post-secondary institutions that have traditionally enrolled black students. For a long time, HBCUs were the only schools where black Americans could receive a college education. While that is no longer the case, HBCUs maintain an important legacy and are still a crucial part of higher education in the United States. If you’re considering attending any of the HBCU colleges, here’s everything you need to know. 

Learn more: Top scholarships for Black students

What is a historically black college or university?

HBCUs date back to the 1800s, during a time in America when black students were denied admission to institutions of higher learning. As a result, HBCUs were established to serve the educational needs of the black community. Until America became widely desegregated, HBCUs were the primary option for black students seeking a postsecondary education. Learn more about the history of HBCUs on the Department of Education website

These days, HBCUs enroll students of all races while maintaining majority black student populations. Most HBCUs are located in southern states, although they’re found in Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania as well. HBCUs fall into a wide range of categories, including public, private, two-year, four-year, liberal arts, research-based, and single-gender serving. While HBCUs represent only 3% of colleges in the nation, they account for 17% of all bachelor’s degrees earned by black students. There are currently 101 HBCUs in the United States and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

Don’t miss: Guide to different types of colleges and universities

What are the well-known HBCUs?

The following schools rank among the most highly-regarded HBCUs:

School LocationEnrollmentTuition Acceptance Rate
Spelman CollegeAtlanta, GA2,120$29,97243.4%
Howard University Washington, DC6,526$28,44036.1%
Xavier University of Louisiana New Orleans, LA2,530$25,94760%
Tuskegee UniversityTuskegee, AL2,394$22,67951.7%
Hampton UniversityHampton, VA3,714$29,28736%
Morehouse CollegeAtlanta, GA2,238$28,84799.8%

Benefits of Attending an HBCU

Campus Environment 

Black students may find a more supportive community and better sense of belonging among their peers at an HBCU. 

For example, Black students may have a better shot at developing meaningful relationships with their professors at HBCUs. According to a Gallup report, black graduates of HBCUs are much more likely than black graduates of non-HBCUs to recall having professors who cared about them as people. The same report found that HBCU students also had better luck at finding mentors who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams.

And while HBCUs primarily serve black students, students of many other races and ethnicities can be found at HBCUs. Recent data shows that non-black students make up 24 percent of enrollment at HBCUs. This is a big plus for anyone who values colleges and universities with diverse communities of students. 

Lower Cost of Attendance 

When it comes to the cost of attendance, HBCUs have tuition rates that are consistently lower than the national average. Because HBCUs include both public and private institutions, the cost of attendance encompasses a wide range. Tuition ranges from $3,260 at Elizabeth City State College to $29,972 at Spelman College. Although the cost of attendance varies greatly among HBCUs, you can generally count on lower rates than non-HBCU counterparts. For instance, tuition at Spelman College is still lower than the average cost of tuition at four-year private nonprofit universities ($37,200). The bottom line is that if you’re looking for a relatively affordable college, HBCUs are an attractive option. This list of the most affordable HBCUs will help you on your search.

STEM Degrees

HBCUs are typically well-suited for students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM). Although black professionals are underrepresented in STEM jobs, HBCUs are making efforts to close that gap. Historically, STEM degrees have been a popular choice among black students attending HBCUs. According to the United Negro College Fund, 25% of black graduates with STEM degrees come from HBCUs. Colleges like North Carolina A&T State University and Howard rank among the top HBCUs for granting STEM degrees. These are the HBCUs with the strongest STEM programs.

Learn more: Top STEM scholarships

Life After College

HBCUs have a strong track record of setting their students up for success after graduation. In fact, data from a Gallup report suggests that black graduates of HBCUs have a better sense of well-being than black graduates of non-HBCUs. According to the report, black HBCU graduates are more likely to have a strong sense of personal and financial well-being. Furthermore, hiring rates are currently higher for HBCU graduates than they are for graduates of other institutions. Not to mention, HBCUs are known for having strong alumni networks that can be extremely useful in securing employment. 

Challenges facing HBCUs

Any discussion regarding HBCUs isn’t complete without mentioning the funding issues that have made it difficult for them to keep pace with PWIs. According to the American Council on Education, HBCUs have 70% smaller endowments than their non-HBCU counterparts. This means that black colleges and universities have to rely more on government funding and donations than non-HBCUs. This is problematic because HBCUs aren’t receiving enough support from either of these funding avenues. Between 2003 and 2015, HBCUs saw a 42% reduction in federal funding. Not to mention, HBCUs receive less donations than PWIs. 

Because they’re chronically underfunded, HBCUs are usually equipped with fewer resources. This is sometimes reflected in the quality of dorms, academic facilities, and athletic programs. Some HBCUs are struggling to even keep their doors open, while many have closed or lost accreditation in the past couple decades. It should be noted, however, that many HBCUs received a surge in donations during 2020. Although this was certainly a step forward for HBCUs, their funding issues are by no means resolved. 

See also: Scholarships at HBCUs

Final thoughts

Despite their financial struggles, there’s no denying that HBCUs have an important legacy and remain a key component of higher education in America. For many students, attending HBCU is a very rewarding experience. But for others, it’s not the right fit. If you’re considering attending an HBCU, you should think about which specific schools can serve you best. Although they share certain key traits, there’s a lot of HBCUs and they’re all unique. Like choosing any college, you should take into account the school’s academic programs, overall cost, student population, campus environment, and location. From there, you can make an informed decision about the school that’s best for you.

Also see: Thurgood Marshall College Scholarship

Frequently asked questions

What is the #1 HBCU in America?

Howard University and Spelman College typically rank highest of the HBCUs on college ranking lists. That being said, each university has different programs in different departments, and the best fit for you is not always the same as the top ranked college. You should be sure to weigh your personal preference when choosing a school, including location, facilities, research capacity, professors, and more. Try planning a college tour to decide which campus makes you feel more at-home.

Also see: Do college rankings matter?

What is the difference between a HBCU and a PWI?

HBCU stands for Historically Black College or University, and PWI stands for a Predominantly White Institution. So, the two are mutually exclusive. PWIs make up the large majority of universities in the United States, whereas the National Center for Education Statistics only recognized 101 HBCUs in 2020.

What college has the highest percentage of Black students?

For the most part, HBCUs make up the entire list of schools with the highest percentage of Black students. That being said, Spelman usually tops that list, with over 97% of their student body identifying as Black in 2021.