What is an HBCU and Why are They Important?

Table of Contents: HBCU History & Modern Importance
1. Frequently Asked Questions
2. Why Are HBCUs Important?
3. Alumni Advice: Why Attend an HBCU?
4. Expert Opinion on HBCUs
5. Financial Resources for Black Students
6. HBCU Resources

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.

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


Charlotte, North Carolina

Kimberly M. Brown

Fisk University Alumni


Nashville, Tennessee

Quandra Chaffers

Spelman College Alumni


Atlanta, Georgia

  • 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.

Expert Opinion on HBCUs

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

Jerry Crawford

Associate Professor at the University of Kansas’ William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, whose research specializes in HBCUs


University of Kansas


Lawrence, KS

Elwood L. Robinson

Chancellor of Winston-Salem State University


Winston-Salem State University


Winston-Salem, North Carolina

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


Community College of Baltimore County


Baltimore, Maryland

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

    Jerry Crawford

    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.

    Elwood Robinson

    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 toward making sure that we sustain these institutions well into the future.

    Kendrick Kenney

    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.

  • What changes have you observed about HBCUs in recent years?

    Jerry Crawford

    HBCUs are 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.

    Elwood Robinson

    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.

    Kendrick Kenney

    Exposure! HBCUs have become a hot topic of discussion recently, and it’s not an accident that many of the top administrators are on social media and that 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 become 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.

  • What do you think the future looks like for HBCUs?

    Jerry Crawford

    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 paradigms. 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 minority-serving institution. 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!

    Elwood Robinson

    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.

    Kendrick Kenney

    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 to influence the educational landscape of the years to come.

Financial Resources for Black Students

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.

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 more articles by Genevieve

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