What is an HBCU and Why are They Important?

Historically black colleges and universities play an important role in the African American community. Here, we highlight their importance, as well as provide advice, expert opinion, and resources for black students.

Updated September 19, 2023

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Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Before the Civil Rights movement, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) offered Black Americans one of their only routes to a college degree. These institutions helped Black Americans pursue professional careers, earn graduate degrees, and advance their education in an inclusive environment.

Meaning of HBCU

HBCU means Historically Black Colleges and Universities. HBCUs date back to the 19th century, when many offered Black students an opportunity for higher education. Today, they continue to serve a vital role in higher education.

HBCUs like Howard University, North Carolina A&T State University, and Morehouse College educate a predominantly Black student body. Over 100 HBCUs educate students, largely in the South. Around half of historically Black colleges operate as public schools. In addition to granting thousands of degrees each year, HBCUs also boast illustrious alumni like Martin Luther King, Jr., Oprah Winfrey, and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Our guide to HBCU colleges examines the vital role of HBCUs in the Black community, offers alumni and expert advice on attending an HBCU, and provides resources such as scholarships for HBCU students.

Frequently Asked Questions about HBCUs

What is a historically black college or university (HBCU)?"

HBCUs date back to the 19th century, when many offered Black students an opportunity for higher education. Today, HBCUs continue to serve a vital role in higher education.

"Why were HBCUs created?"

In the wake of emancipation, many Black Americans founded HBCUs to educate Black students. During the segregation era, HBCUs offered one of the only paths to a college degree for Black students.

Why are these schools called 'historically' black?"

Historically, HBCUs enrolled primarily Black students. However, today non-Black students make up nearly a quarter of HBCU enrollment.

Why do these schools still exist?"

After the Civil Rights movement, HBCUs continued to offer Black students a supportive, inclusive environment. Today, HBCUs graduate a high number of Black STEM majors.

Where are HBCUs typically located?"

You can find most of the 101 HBCUs in the Southern states. Around half of these HBCUs operate as private schools, while the half are public institutions.

Why Are HBCUs Important

Historically, HBCUs served a vital function. Today they continue to benefit Black students thanks to lower tuition rates, a thriving community, and a higher number of STEM graduates. This section details why HBCUs appeal to students and offer advantages compared to other schools.

Lower Tuition Rates

At the end of 2020, the total U.S. student loan debt topped $1.7 trillion. Black students graduate with much higher student loan debt than white students. Black borrowers also default on student loans more often. Black bachelor's degree-holders default at five times the rate of white graduates, due, in part, to higher student loans and less family wealth.

Lower tuition rates at HBCUs help students limit their borrowing. Even the most expensive HBCUs charge less than the national average in tuition. Many public HBCUs offer students in-state tuition discounts. HBCU students also report higher rates of receiving financial aid compared to the national average.

Increase the Number of Minorities in STEM Fields

Black professionals face underrepresentation in STEM fields, but HBCUs help close that gap. In 2019, 27% of all Black STEM graduates received HBCU degrees. Between 1995-2004, 46% of Black woman STEM degree-holders graduated from an HBCU. At the doctoral level, nearly 30% of Black graduates with a doctorate in science or engineering attended an HBCU.

Schools like North Carolina A&T State University and Howard rank among the top HBCUs for granting STEM degrees. In 2020, the Department of Education committed $3.9 million in grants for STEM programs at HBCUs.

Narrow the Racial Wealth Gap

The racial wealth gap starts early and continues through college. Black college graduates accrue more student loan debt than white graduates, and the racial student loan gap only widens after graduation. The problem compounds for college students who take out loans but never earn a degree.

HBCUs help close the racial wealth gap. In 2016, HBCUs awarded 26% of all bachelor's degrees granted to Black students, while comprising only 9% of four-year institutions. By helping Black students earn a degree, these schools increase graduates' earning potential. According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, "The difference between the lifetime wages of college and high school graduates is $1 million." HBCUs also report a higher graduation rate for Black students.

Thriving Supportive Community

HBCUs offer a thriving, supportive community. Black students report a better sense of belonging compared to their experience at predominantly white institutions (PWI). In a 2014-2015 Gallup poll, students attending historically Black colleges reported a much higher sense that their professors cared about them. They felt more supported and they more often found mentors, compared with Black students at PWIs.

HBCUs even improve mental health outcomes for students, likely because they face fewer microaggressions and outright instances of racism. HBCUs invest in creating a shared experience and culture for their students, translating to a better learning environment. HBCUs offer alumni networks, more Black faculty members, and more internship opportunities.

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HBCUs in Communities

HBCUs can be a critical part of the community. HBCUs provide a solid education for students in the community. A 2014 study commissioned by UNCF found that HBCUs have a total economic impact of $14.8 billion. This includes money spent in the community and after graduation. The same study found that over 134,000 jobs were generated by HBCUs and their graduates in local and regional communities. HBCUs are a core part of the community, and they help students succeed after graduation. In 2014 50,037 HBCU graduates were expected to make $130 million over their lifetime, ultimately helping the economy and communities.

HBCU Notable Donations

Johnson C. Smith UniversityDavid and Nicole Tepper ($250,000); Bernard Smith ($11,000); Wells Fargo ($1 million)
Morehouse CollegeEstate of Dr. Eugene McGowan, Jr. ($4.6 million); MacKenzie Scott ($20 million); Patty Quillin and Reed Hastings ($40 million)
Spelman CollegeMacKenzie Scott ($20 million); Patty Quillin and Reed Hastings ($40 million); Ronda Stryker and William Johnston ($30 million)
Howard UniversityKarsh Family Foundation ($10 million); Bloomberg Philanthropies ($31.7 million)

Alumni Advice: Why Attend an HBCU?

What do alumni say about attending an HBCU? We interviewed three HBCU alumni about their choice to attend a historically black college. They discuss their experience on campus, their opportunities after earning a degree, and the best part of attending historically Black colleges and universities.

Chad Dion Lassiter

Johnson C. Smith University Alumni

Kimberly M. Brown

Fisk University Alumni

Quandra Chaffers

Spelman College Alumni

Why did you choose an HBCU?

Chad Dion Lassiter, Johnson C. Smith University

I decided to attend an HBCU because of the rich tradition that has produced black superheroes like my idol W.E.B. Dubois, who attended Fisk University. Additionally, during the time that I attended an HBCU, the President of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) was former congressman William Gray, who was a close friend of my mother, and he spoke highly of the tradition of the black college.

Moreover, I was encouraged by my high school English teacher, Mrs. Delores Henderson, who attended Johnson C. Smith University and told me about the Golden Bull tradition. I was more than intrigued, so I attended, and it transformed my life.

Kimberly M. Brown, Fisk University

I was strongly encouraged by my family and others around me to go to an HBCU. It seemed like a natural option. All of my close friends and family members that I grew up around attended HBCUs. It seemed like the most logical next step. I wanted to go to a school where I could have personal attention and learn more about myself as a Black person. I had learned no Black history outside of what AP U.S. History taught me.

Quandra Chaffers, Spelman College

I wanted an undergraduate experience that was supportive, and I wanted to become part of a legacy. I also wanted to go to an institution that was challenging. Of the HBCUs that met these criteria, I looked at Howard University, Xavier University, and Spelman College. The latter two were my top two choices, and I applied for early admission.

Both institutions accepted me, and I chose Xavier at the end of the day. Xavier is located in New Orleans, a city rooted in my family history: it's where my mother was born, where my grandmother first started teaching after college and brimming with Creole culture -- my culture. Xavier is my mother's alma mater, and I wanted to continue in tradition. She had so much pride for her alma mater that it seemed like a no-brainer.

My college advisor was a white woman who didn't understand the value of HBCUs. She only pushed the University of California system on me. She noticed that I had stellar grades but didn't understand that it was just as difficult to earn a way into Spelman and Xavier as it was to earn a way into UCLA.

Having gone to stellar private schools where I was one of many black children in the class, I was not yet ready to be the only minority student in my classroom. I did not want to learn in spaces where I would be subjected to microaggressions daily. At the time, I didn't know the word microaggression, but now I understand that was my fear. I knew that racism was everywhere and that going to a school like UC Berkeley would afford me many opportunities, but I didn't want to deal with covert racism daily.

What was your experience at your alma mater like? Do you think your experience would be different if you didn't attend an HBCU?

Chad Dion Lassiter, Johnson C. Smith University

My experience was beyond amazing. I made lifelong friends and it built character and taught me how to combat American white racism. Each day while attending JCSU was a teachable moment. There were so many fun times, and the classes taught me about Black excellence. The overall experience turned me into the social change agent I am today. If I had attended a PWI directly out of high school, I think I would have faced many microaggressions during that era.

Kimberly M. Brown, Fisk University

Fisk was amazing. It was far enough away from home where no one could surprise visit me, but close enough where I could get home quickly. Freshman year was life changing. I studied hard, but was very busy with clubs and campus organizations. To this day, my best friends are girls that I met my freshman year.

Quandra Chaffers, Spelman College

If I didn't attend an HBCU, I don't think I would have the same confidence and self-awareness that I have now. I had attended predominantly white schools all the way through high school. I always was the only minority student in my AP classes, organizations, and clubs. I often felt like I was the token "smart" black girl in high school. I wanted to see myself outside of that lens, for once, and just be myself. If I had attended a PWI, I would not have been able to fully realize who I am.

I only attended Xavier for one week, then Hurricane Katrina hit. I was forced to leave the campus. Eventually, I settled at Spelman to finish out my freshmen fall semester and decided to stay. My experience as Spelman was fantastic. I loved gaining a liberal arts education. Spelman introduced me to feminism and shaped me to become a student activist.

What kinds of opportunities opened up for you because you attended an HBCU that you may not have had otherwise?

Chad Dion Lassiter, Johnson C. Smith University

The opportunity to develop a framework around the Black struggle and my role in addressing the portraits of white racism and all forms of oppression. Attending an HBCU taught me how to be selfless and how to serve, how to love, and how to lead. The opportunity to meet people who looked just like me and to learn about one another, grow with one another, and to fight against injustice with one another on behalf of Black humanity. Other opportunities included gaining the confidence to attend a PWI for graduate school because I was intellectually grounded at an HBCU.

Kimberly M. Brown, Fisk University

I don't think I've had specific opportunities (i.e., internships) that opened up to me only because I went to an HBCU. However, I've been able to meet a lot of other people that also attended HBCUs and remained friends with them throughout the years. Those friendships have led to advice and guidance that allowed me to pursue different opportunities I didn't know existed. For example, when I wasn't accepted into medical school during my first few applications, I found out that one of my friends attended Ross in Dominica. I had long conversations with her, and she encouraged me to apply. I graduated in 2014. Without her friendship and advice, I'm not sure I would be where I am today.

Quandra Chaffers, Spelman College

I was given the opportunity to practice mock interviews that had the potential to turn into real internships. As part of a business etiquette program, I was introduced to other ways I could use my psychology major to further my career. I was fairly certain at that age that I would become a therapist, but my experiences at Spelman showed me how my degree could be used in politics, business marketing, research design, and social justice.

I think another school would have mentored me similarly and had similar programs. However, it's much easier to explore in a space without being hindered by racism, or without being boxed in by a professor's biases.

What do you think was the best part of attending an HBCU?

Chad Dion Lassiter, Johnson C. Smith University

The best part for me was the intellectual vigor and enjoying the intellectual engagement of the courses I took. Furthermore, the mentorship I received.

Kimberly M. Brown, Fisk University

Camaraderie. No matter which HBCU you attended, you have an instant connection with someone, because likely, you had similar experiences. It's a broad network of people that have similar experiences.

Quandra Chaffers, Spelman College

One of the best parts of attending Spelman specifically is the lifelong sisterhood. Next year, I will have my ten-year reunion, and there are many traditions that come with that, including being able to cross under a white arch with my classmates and the new grads. I love that everywhere I go there are inside jokes and shared experiences to being a Spelman woman. I meet strong, accomplished women who are proud to carry on this legacy in every city I go.

Black college graduates owe an average of $7,400 more in student loan debt compared to white graduates. That gap only grows after earning a degree, ballooning to $25,000 more for Black loan holders. Black graduates end up paying more in interest and face greater economic hardships than their white counterparts.

Black students often do not benefit from family wealth to fall back on when paying for school. As a result, Black students face unique barriers in higher education, including financial barriers.

Solving the racial wealth gap will not happen easily. However, financial resources can help Black college students save for college, pay off their debt, and take out fewer loans. Students at historically Black colleges, for example, benefit from specialized scholarships to lower degree costs. The following resources introduce Black financial experts, financial literacy information, and scholarships for Black students.

HBCU Resources

Want to know more about HBCUs? Check out the following resources, including blog posts, articles, HBCU lifestyle information, and scholarship opportunities for HBCU students. These resources teach prospective students more about HBCUs, connect current students with the broader network outside of their school, and keep HBCU graduates in the loop.

A leading source of news, entertainment, achievements and other relevant information on HBCUs. Features extensive blog posts and articles related to HBCUs. Keeps students connected to the most current HBCU lifestyle information. This organization provides support to HBCU students, such as access to internships, scholarships, and career development. This documentary looks at the history of HBCUs and their role in nurturing African American professionals.
Portrait of Genevieve Carlton

Genevieve Carlton

Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and earned tenure as a history professor at the University of Louisville. An award-winning historian and writer, Genevieve has published multiple scholarly articles and a book with the University of Chicago Press. She currently works as a freelance writer and consultant.

See articles by Genevieve

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