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Historically Black Colleges
and Universities The History of HBCUs and Why They’re Still Important Today

Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have an important role in the African American community as schools that first gave black students the opportunity to obtain higher education when virtually no other colleges would. Today, HBCUs are still an integral part of the black higher education experience in the United States, and this guide takes a look at the importance of these colleges both in the past and present, as well as where they’re headed in the future.

Meet the Experts

Jerry Crawford, PhD Associate professor at the University of Kansas
Elwood Robinson 13th Chancellor of Winston-Salem State University
Kendrick Kenney Coordinator of the Digital Media Production program

Alumni Insight

Chad Dion Lassiter Johnson C. Smith University alumni
Kimberly M. Brown MD, Fisk University alumni
Quandra Chaffers LCSW, Spelman College alumni

Understanding Historically Black Colleges and Universities

What is an historically black college or university (HBCU)?

An historically black college or university is a higher learning institution that was established before 1964 with the mission of meeting the educational needs of black students.

Why were HBCUs created?

After the Civil War, HBCUs were created to meet the educational needs of black students who previously had negligible opportunities to attend college. These schools have humble beginnings, with the first HBCUs conducting classes in people’s homes, as well as church basements and old schoolhouses. The Morrill Act of 1890, which required states to provide land-grants for colleges to serve black students, allowed HBCUs to build their own campuses.

Many people are not aware that HBCUs were founded, not only for free and newly freed blacks, but also for low socioeconomic populations. These populations included whites not able to attend state supported schools. HBCU mission statements show their ability and desire to educate those that were denied higher education, both by law and by practice.

Jerry Crawford
Why are these schools called “historically” black?

The designation of HBCU was created by the Higher Education Act of 1965. This law defines these schools as “any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans.”

Why do these schools still exist?

“HBCUs are probably even more important today than ever before. These institutions were created to allow recently emancipated slaves an opportunity to pursue higher education. While times have changed, HBCUs remain relevant,” said Elwood L. Robinson, Chancellor of Winston-Salem State University. “Our value is in the ‘HBCU experience.’ We provide a culture of caring—a culture that prepares students to contribute to their communities, a culture that builds confidence and that gives them the essential skills they need to cultivate a career. That is a culture that is good for everyone and can help bridge the academic achievement gap that exists in America today.”

Where are HBCUs located?

Prospective students who are looking for historically black colleges or universities can use the map below to locate these schools.

Myth vs. Reality: The Current State of Historically Black Colleges

Despite being a part of the educational landscape for many years, historically black colleges and universities are misunderstood and have several myths circulating about them that people still believe to this day. The following are some of these myths and why they are not an accurate reflection of the HBCU experience.

Myth #1: HBCU enrollment is declining

Due to some reports by news outlets like Forbes that outline enrollment decreases at some HBCUs, there is a popular misconception that these schools as a whole are all seeing similar declines. But this simply is not true: Not only are HBCUs seeing an uptick in enrollment, it has actually been on the rise in recent years—in part because of the racial unrest that can be seen at predominantly white institutions, or PWIs. Most notable was a series of incidents that occurred at the University of Missouri—including black student organizations having their meetings disrupted, students being called racial slurs, and a swastika made of feces being drawn on the wall of a residence—that led to student protests around campus.

According to Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, incidents like this that have occurred at campuses around the country have led black students to seek out HBCUs to experience an environment where they feel more comfortable. In fact, this phenomenon, which Kimbrough dubbed the “Missouri Effect” in an article in The Washington Post, has led to the following increases in HBCU enrollments in 2016:

  • Central State University, 22 percent
  • Delaware State University, 19 percent
  • Dillard University, 22 percent
  • Florida Memorial University, 20 percent
  • Shaw University, 49 percent
  • South Carolina State, 39 percent
  • Tuskegee University, 32 percent
  • Virginia State University, 30 percent

Many HBCUs—public and private—are seeing a large increase in freshmen enrollment, reversing a long trend. Here at Winston-Salem State University, we’re building a new freshmen residence hall to accommodate the growing number of first-time students. Since fall 2016, we’ve contracted with off-campus apartments to handle the influx of new students. For the upcoming fall, we’re seeing a 10 percent increase in applications for new freshmen and a 15 percent increase in applications for transfer students.

Elwood L. Robinson
Myth #2: HBCUs lack quality education and degree offerings.

HBCUs provide the same level of quality education as other institutions. For example, the United Negro College Fund reports that 20 percent of all African-American college graduates around the country received their degree from a historically black college or university—despite these schools only making up about three percent of the nation’s colleges. In addition, HBCUs produce 25 percent of all the African-American graduates with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics degrees.

Academic rigors can be found at an HBCU and students’ degrees are just as important as anyone else’s who does not attend an HBCU. Students can expect to be pushed and mentored by some of the best minds around.

Chad Dion Lassiter
Myth #3: HBCUs are too expensive.

With the student loan debt of college graduates skyrocketing in recent years, all students are concerned about getting a quality education without breaking the bank. Those who enroll in historically black colleges and universities get this bang for their college bucks because, according to U.S. News and World Report, HBCUs that are members of the United Negro College Fund generally charge $6,000 less in tuition—which can go a long way toward keeping costs down.

Collegiate education is under the microscope and students want return on investment in our current economic environment. Financially, HBCUs make sense. Howard University is touted as one of the top historically black institutions ($25,000 per year) along with Spelman ($28,000), Hampton ($25,000) and North Carolina A&T ($19,000) to name a few.

Kendrick Kenney
Myth #4: HBCUs lack diversity.

Despite being named historically black colleges and universities, it’s actually incorrect to assume that only black students attend these schools. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics of the U.S. Department of Education, non-black enrollments in 2016 were 23 percent—up from 15 percent in 1976. Also, the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education issued a report detailing the 2011 undergraduate enrollment trends of HBCUs. In the study, the racial breakdown of students was as follows:

  • 76 percent Black/African American
  • 13 percent white
  • 1 percent Asian, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander and American Indian or Alaska Native
  • 3 percent Hispanic/Latino

Also, according to U.S. News and World Report, Bluefield State College further dispels the myth that only black students attend HBCUs because that school actually has a student body that was made up of 85 percent white students in 2013. Similarly, West Virginia State University had about 61 percent white students during that year.

A lot of people believe that HBCUs are not diverse. HBCUs are the perfect snapshot into the African diaspora. Students come from around the globe to attend HBCUs. My classmates were from Jamaica, Bahamas, Ghana, Nigeria, and from all over the United States. More importantly, not every HBCU student is black. Asian, Hispanic and white students all attend HBCUs.

Kimberly M. Brown
Myth #5: HBCUs don’t have the resources to adequately support students.

Although HBCUs don’t necessarily have the same endowments as predominantly white institutions, it does not mean these schools do not have the resources needed to support students. On average, these schools receive $27.7 million in federal Title IV funding. Also, several schools—such as Spelman College, Morehouse College, Hampton University, Tuskegee University, Xavier University of Louisiana, Meharry Medical College, and Howard University—receive $100 million in endowments.

Myth #6: HBCUs don’t prepare students for success.

Students who graduate from HBCUs are thriving. According to a survey conducted by Gallup-Purdue University, 55 percent of black students who completed their degrees at HBCUs reported that the school prepared them for life after graduation, as compared to 30 percent of students who did not attend HBCUs. Similarly, 51 percent of black HBCU graduates surveyed said they were doing well financially, while only 29 percent of their non- HBCU counterparts could say the same.

The struggle many students have is they don’t understand that college is really about two things: networking and resources. Taking advantage of resources is pivotal when attending these colleges and universities. Students must be diligent in using every resource from computers, labs, and specialized equipment. The second thing is networking and not just with each other. Your professors’ network is your network. Students should maximize office hours and focus on fostering relationships with faculty. Many faculty members are known in your specialized industry or major. I think HBCUs do a good job of getting these two things right, which in turn helps the students have success after graduation.

Kendrick Kenney
Myth #7: HBCUs are just party schools.

“This myth may be from the numerous outstanding bands and ‘classics’ held for football games. While it is true that almost every football game is a ‘classic’ or ‘event,’ it is also true that these games are the primary athletic funding sources for the entire university. Since endowments at the majority of these schools are less than a fraction of say, the University of Virginia’s, the football games at HBCUs are advertised as events to gain outside sponsors and corporate funding,” said Jerry Crawford, an Associate Professor at the University of Kansas whose research specializes in HBCUs.

Myth #8: HBCU degrees are not the same as those from other universities.

“This myth is a carryover from when many HBCUs, founded as ‘normal colleges,’ were teaching students with little or no previous education at all and the schools were, in effect, high schools,” said Crawford. That was more than 100 years ago and many still think HBCUs are not rigorous, when in fact, many are featured among other competetive predominantly white institutions.

Alumni Advice: Why I Chose to Attend an HBCU

Just as students from other schools, HBCU alumni have diverse experiences and career paths, but they share one thing in common: a love and appreciation for their respective alma maters. To provide a look at the experiences of HBCU graduates, we spoke to the following alumni, who shared why attending an HBCU was the right choice for them.

  • Chad Dion Lassiter, Johnson C. Smith University alumni
  • Kimberly M. Brown, Fisk University alumni
  • Quandra Chaffers, Spelman College alumni

Why did you decide to go to college at an HBCU?

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 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 she told me about the Golden Bull tradition. I was more than intrigued, so I attended, and it transformed my very life.

Chad Dion Lassiter, Johnson C. Smith 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 that 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.

Kimberly M. Brown, Fisk University

I wanted an undergraduate experience that was supportive, and I wanted to become part of a legacy. I wanted to also 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 following 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 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.

Quandra Chaffers, Spelman College

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 and 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.

Chad Dion Lassiter, Johnson C. Smith 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.

Kimberly M. Brown, Fisk University

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 predominately white schools all the way through high school. I always was the only minority 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.

Quandra Chaffers, Spelman College

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 and to 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.

Chad Dion Lassiter, Johnson C. Smith 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 that 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.

Kimberly M. Brown, Fisk University

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.

Quandra Chaffers, Spelman College

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

Chad Dion Lassiter, Johnson C. Smith 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.

Kimberly M. Brown, Fisk University

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.

Quandra Chaffers, Spelman College

The Modern Importance of HBCUs

The standing of African Americans in the United States has come a long way since HBCUs were initially created. As a result, many people believe they are no longer needed. However, these schools still serve important functions within the community, including the following.

Closing the racial wealth gap

HBCUs provide a quality education at a reasonable price, which helps to lower the amount of money students need to take out in loans. Since 54 percent of African American graduates have student loan debt compared to 39 percent of white graduates, getting a degree from an HBCU can go a long way toward closing the wealth gap.

Providing a growing STEM environment

In recent years, more and more HBCU graduates are getting their degrees in STEM-related disciplines. For example, 50 percent of black engineers and 65 percent of black doctors earned their degrees from historically black colleges or universities.

Sharing experiences

Students who attend HBCUs have the opportunity to learn around others who share the same experiences, which can make them feel more at home than they would at PWIs. This allows them to learn and explore college life without feeling like they are outsiders on their own campus.

Closing the college achievement gap

“In recent years, Ivy League and other ‘selective’ colleges have awarded scholarships to high-achieving students from low-income families. But once these students arrive on their campuses, they become overwhelmed. Just providing scholarships is inadequate at reverse the widening academic success gap. Don’t get me wrong; scholarship funding is essential. But students, particularly first-generation and those from low-income families, require an educational experience that integrates academic guidance, mentoring, support services and a caring community,” said Robinson. “HBCUs have a long history of educating exceptionally promising students from under-resourced families. We have always created a different educational experience. HBCUs have this advantage in narrowing the academic success gap. Our institutions provide a safe place that cultivates confidence and builds leadership skills in an environment that is nurturing and supportive.”

Expert Opinion: The Future of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

HBCUs have come a long way over the years and are continuing to improve. To provide an understanding of where HBCUs are headed and the challenges they face, we interviewed the following experts.

  • Jerry Crawford, an Associate Professor at the University of Kansas’ William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, whose research specializes in HBCUs
  • Elwood L. Robinson, Chancellor of Winston-Salem State University
  • Kendrick Kenney, Coordinator of the Digital Media Production program at the Community College of Baltimore County and previous a full-time Communications Lecturer at Bowie State University

What are the biggest challenges HBCUs face and what are they doing to overcome them?

HBCUs are facing the shuttering of their doors. Several have been closed in the last five to ten years for lack of state funding. The challenge is that many state legislatures are reducing funding for these schools, in favor of PWI schools in their systems. Some legislatures are using the premise of “Why should we fund two engineering schools in the state? ‘State U’ has a fine reputation and our tax dollars should be used wisely.

Also, federal funding to all schools has been harder for all students to earn. Pell Grants and higher student loans hurt first-generation students and lower socio-economic families’ ability to afford the costs of four-year universities. The loss of funding is the major cause of why these institutions are losing accredited programs, due to lack of economic stability.

HBCUs need to continue to let the state legislatures know their situations and educate the public on the importance of their missions. Regarding their original missions, HBCUs will need to incorporate current economic realities into their governance.

Jerry Crawford

I think HBCUs haven’t done a great job in recent years of telling our stories. At Winston-Salem State University, every day I let the region, the state, and the world know about this institution and the great things that are happening.

If you think about all the constituents that are necessary for the university to be successful—our alumni, corporate partners, governmental officials—we need to engage them more, and we need to have conversations with them about how they can support the work that we’re doing. I think having those kinds of conversations and connections will go a long way to making sure that we sustain these institutions well into the future.

Elwood Robinson

I think the biggest challenges HBCUs face are retention and funding. Retention is an issue for colleges nationwide and everyone is essentially trying to figure out ways to effectively retain students from the freshman year to sophomore year and also graduate them in four to six years. The reason HBCUs struggle oftentimes relates back to the students that they serve—meaning the retention rate doesn’t necessarily speak to how academically gifted the students are, but more so to the financial backgrounds in which they are coming from—which is why it is so important to educate potential students about scholarship opportunities and financial policies up front. I think HBCUs are doing a good job of engaging with prospective students earlier in their high school matriculation with specialized college fairs and conventions, which will allow them to be better prepared financially and in turn should have an effect on student retention.

The second challenge is funding. Funding is a very complex issue to unpack because it really deals with two different things. The first one is equity. Many HBCUs have filed lawsuits against states nationwide demanding the same funding as neighboring state institutions. However, many HBCUs are private institutions, which introduces the second issue: alumni endowment and support. It is important that alumni give back to these institutions. I think HBCUs are doing a better job in connecting with the younger alumni. It really starts there making young alumni feel that they have a voice, so that they take ownership of the university and give back early.

Kendrick Kenney

HBCUs are, indeed, looking at governance as their best chance at being successful in continuing their academic excellence. Many HBCU boards have hired, not Ph.D.’s, but former business and corporate executives, to be their presidents and chancellors. Many are adopting a business model in the place of their founded mission statement.

We have also seen a rise in terminal degrees at HBCUs. Several institutions have moved from Tier 3 to Tier 1. Some have advanced to full Research I institutions.

Jerry Crawford

I have observed that HBCUs are really trying to find their niche in the marketplace. Some of our institutions are carving out an emphasis on engineering and the sciences. Others have strengths in educating teachers and administrators. At WSSU, we are focusing on providing a liberal education that builds critical thinking and analytical problem-solving skills that give our students an edge in the workplace. We cannot all be all things to all people. We must build upon our strengths and complement one another.

Elwood Robinson

Exposure! HBCUs have become a hot topic of discussion recently and it’s not an accident many of the top administrators are on social media and these institutions have been leaders in academic branding. Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough is known as “hiphopprez.” Most students live on social media and these institutions have found a way to meet them where they live. Also, Hollywood has been reunited with HBCU culture in a sense. Many shows and movies based on the HBCU experience have been becoming more popular. I think another change I have observed is aesthetic renovations on the campuses of HBCUs. I travel regularly and the vast majority of HBCUs have changed significantly in the last five years with new state of the art facilities populating the campuses.

Kendrick Kenney

The futures of HBCUs are bright! HBCUs, as a group, are still young in higher education. The current focus on the business model will soon see the successful merging of business and original mission paradigm. As HBCUs increase their research and terminal degree graduations, endowments, funding and financial self-security will increase. States will see the value in continuing to support these local economic incubators and see them as the innovators and places where all citizens are welcomed and accepted to learn.

It has been in the last, say seven years or so, that some have tried to take away the HBCU designation and start using “MSI.” However, I am sure the original purpose of these “1890” schools is still needed. These schools were originally started to be teaching and vocational schools. Everything I have seen about getting America back to its greatness lately is that we need a viable workforce and lifelong learning. HBCUs are set up to do just that!

Jerry Crawford

I see HBCUs having even more of an impact in the communities we service. At WSSU, our motto “Enter to Learn. Depart to Serve.” is more than just a motto—it is something that we live each day. We have built our curriculum around social justice. We have made it a signature part of the WSSU experience. So, when students come here, they’re thinking about how they can give back, how they can contribute to their communities.

A recent UNCF economic impact report found that HBCUs have an annual economic impact of $15 billion, an impact that is felt in the communities and throughout the country. I see this impact only growing as HBCUs tell their story.

Elwood Robinson

I think the future is bright for HBCUs. The educational landscape is changing and HBCUs are doing a good job in staying on the cutting edge with STEM programs and online education. Also the secret is out and people are making more financially informed decisions when it comes to debt and education. So as long as HBCUs maintain these pillars of success—affordable, cutting-edge technological education—they have an opportunity to not only remain relevant, but also influence the educational landscape in years to come.

Kendrick Kenney

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