If you’re looking into colleges for yourself or somebody around you, you’ll probably come across HBCUs as an option. If you don’t know what they are or their history, you could potentially lose out on a great option for Black students in the US. So read on to learn more about HBCU, their history and relevance, and how you can benefit from them.
What HBCU Stand For?
HBCU stands for Historically Black Colleges and Universities. While most higher education institutions are predominantly White institutions (PWIs), HBCUs and predominantly Black institutions (PBIs) were created for and by Black Americans looking to educate young Black students in the United States.
The difference between HBCUs and PBIs is that HBCUs were established before 1964. PBIs are higher education institutions established after 1964 that have at least 40% African-American students, at least 1,000 undergraduate students, a minimum of 50% low-income or first-generation students, and a lower per-student expenditure than average.
What Are HBCUs?
HBCUs were officially created by the Higher Education Act of 1965, which officially defined them as historically black colleges or universities established and accredited before the legislation that had a primary mission of educating Black Americans.
HBCUs can be public or private institutions. They offer undergraduate degrees in a wide variety of academic programs. Some are all-male or all-female, but most are coed. In addition to undergraduate programs, there are three medical schools, six law schools, and countless other graduate programs attached to HBCUs.
While a majority of HBCUs are in the south-eastern region of the United States, there are HBCUs in 22 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Common Misconceptions About HBCUs
Because the US government distinctly categorizes HBCUs, there are many misconceptions about them–from who can attend to the quality of the education offered.
- “You must be Black to attend”– while HBCUs’ primary mission is to educate Black Americans, non-Black people make up 20% of the HBCU student population. Any student of any race can apply to attend an HBCU.
- “HBCUs offer a worse education”– many highly-ranked graduate school programs and big corporations recruit intensely at HBCUs because of their rigorous standards of education. They offer competitive degree programs and education opportunities.
- “HBCUs are just about partying and Greek life”– partying and Greek life are present at almost every single higher education institution in the United States. HBCUs do not see a higher rate of partying, hazing, or other problematic behavior compared to predominantly White institutions. Greek life also offers an excellent way for students to connect and create lifelong bonds and networks.
- “HBCUs are racist”–anyone with any knowledge of racism knows this is false. While HBCUs promote the education, pride, and networking of Black students, they do not promote prejudice or discrimination against anybody based on their race. HBCUs were founded because of the racism that Black students faced when trying to apply or attend non-HBCUs.
The History of HBCUs
Now that you know all about what an HBCU is and is not, it’s important to recognize the history of HBCUs. Ancestors had to fight hard to make our current day HBCUs possible, so let’s appreciate their hard work.
First Black Students Attending College
John Chavis was the first African American student to attend college in the United States in 1799. However, the first African American to earn a Bachelor’s degree in the United States was Alexander Lucius Twilight in 1823. Mary Jane Patterson was the first African American woman to earn a Bachelor’s degree in 1862. While they were all exceptional students, they alone were able to attend their schools. Most African Americans couldn’t access higher education.
The First HBCUs
The oldest HBCU in the United States was founded in 1837 in Pennsylvania. Richard Humphreys created the African Institution (now known as Cheyney University) to teach free Black Americans employable skills. Instead of a curriculum you would see today, the African Institution focused on teaching reading, writing, and basic arithmetic because most of the students grew up in slavery, lacking any chance of formal education.
Soon after, three more HBCUs were established in Washington D.C., Ohio, and another school in Pennsylvania. Wilberforce, the school in Ohio, was established by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, making it the first HBCU to be operated by African Americans.
Some local communities around the newly established schools fought hard against them, citing that educating freed slaves was unnecessary and dangerous to society. In most of the South, Black Americans were barred from receiving an education–free or not– so all of the first HBCUs were in more Northern territories.
From 1865 to 1900, there was a boom in HBCUs. Nine HBCUs were established in 1867 alone, including some of the most renowned HBCUs in the country like Howard University and Morehouse College.
This was an especially notable period of time because the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1865. With the freeing of slaves came the need for higher education institutions for Black Americans. For the first time in American history, Black Americans had the right to an education.
Free African Americans most often started the HBCUs that were established during this time period, with the financial backing of religious organizations like the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the American Missionary Association.
For the first time, Southern states hosted HBCUs. Due to segregated school systems, Southern states requested that the federal government pay for and build HBCUs in their states to avoid any integration.
While HBCUs are now just tertiary education institutions, many of them offered primary and secondary education as well during this time period. This is because many Black Americans did not have access to any education before the Emancipation Proclamation, so they needed to start at the beginning. In the South especially, even with the end of slavery, most Black Americans were not able to attend any school other than an HBCU regardless of their age or grade level.
After the boom of 1865-1900, HBCUs had a thriving business of educating most Black Americans in the United States.
Before the Civil Rights Act and the desegregation of schools, HBCUs educated almost all Black higher education students in the US. 75% of all Black Americans holding a doctorate, 75% of all Black officers in the US military, and 80% of all Black federal judges were educated at an HBCU.
Between the South’s segregation policy and the North’s quota system for Black students, Black Americans looking for higher education were funneled into HBCUs.
Now, HBCUs are an important part of the American education system. There are currently 101 operating HBCUs throughout the country. They provide excellent educational opportunities, create a vast network of Black professionals throughout the US, and serve as a base for Black intellectualism and art.
There has been an uptick in racial violence and threats committed against HBCUs in recent years. In February of 2022, more than a dozen HBCUs had to lock down their campuses and put their students on high alert because of bomb threats.
From the spotlight on HBCUs because of Kamala Harris’ ascension to the vice presidency and the increasing polarization of race issues in society, HBCUs are being targeted because of their mission to educate Black Americans.
Why People Choose HBCUs
HBCUs have educated some of the brightest minds in the United States. Every year, Black students are drawn to an HBCU to receive a top-tier education and be surrounded by like-minded people. Here are some of the top reasons students choose to attend HBCUs.
Top Tier Education
HBCUs offer excellent educational opportunities to all of their students. Many HBCUs have incredible reputations that will get your foot in the door at almost any graduate program, business, or organization in the world.
They offer all of the same academic programs as predominantly White institutions, so whether you’re looking for lab experience, study abroad programs, or intensive language training, there is a program at an HBCU for you.
In 2013, HBCUs awarded 25% of all STEM bachelor’s degrees to African American students in the United States, despite educating only 10% of all African American students.
One of the greatest draws of attending an HBCU is the financial aspect. HBCU have significantly lower total costs of attendance for all of their students.
They also have many named and unnamed scholarship opportunities for high school students who have excelled academically or contributed to their local community. The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) alone awards 60,000 scholarships a year to students attending HBCUs.
HBCUs offer a very supportive and collegiate undergraduate environment. This can be a welcome change for Black students who have previously been educated at predominantly White secondary school institutions. For many students, it is their first time being surrounded by other students who look like them and have a shared history, culture, and perspective.
At HBCUs, most of the faculty and staff are also Black or non-White, so instruction is race informed, and mentorships come from a place of common understanding.
This supportive environment extends far beyond the campus boundaries. As students look for post-grad jobs and summer internships, the alumni network of HBCUs can offer placements in some of the best workplaces in the country.
Famous Alumni of HBCUs
HBCUs have educated some of the most influential people in the world and their fields. Here are some of the most famous:
Vice President Kamala Harris
Vice President Kamala Harris is the first graduate of an HBCU to ascend to the second-highest office in the country. She’s also famously the first woman, the first person of color, the first Asian American, and the first African American Vice President.
She attended Howard University in Washington D.C. for her Bachelor’s degree in political science and economics. She joined the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority during her time at Howard.
Oprah Winfrey, the first Black woman billionaire and richest self-made woman in the United States, is a proud graduate of the HBCU Tennessee State University. Throughout her career, she has championed Black excellency through her talk show, charitable organizations, and involvement in Black media.
Oprah Winfrey has continued to support and uplift HBCUs. She created the Oprah Winfrey Scholars Program at Morehouse College, which provides a financial scholarship, leadership development, and community service opportunities to select students attending Morehouse College.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., undoubtedly one of the most influential people to have ever existed and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, attended Morehouse College. His father and maternal grandfather were also Morehouse men.
During his time at Morehouse, he gained the foundation for the rest of his life through his mentorship with Professor Walter Richard Chivers, involvement with the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and Morehouse chapter of the NAACP, and friendship with Dr. Benjamin Mays, the president of Morehouse at the time of his attendance.
The first African American Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall, left a long legacy in the realm of HBCUs. Not only did he argue Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court, but he graduated from Howard University School of Law and Lincoln University with his Bachelor’s. He also founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and served as its executive director.
His HBCU legacy lives on in the form of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which helps fund the education of selected students attending HBCUs for undergrad, graduate, or law school.
Examples of HBCUs
While there are currently 101 operating HBCUs that offer a wide range of academic programs and educational opportunities, here are some of the most well-known:
Established in 1867, Howard University is one of the top HBCUs in the United States. They have a special focus on research and are home to the top-ranked HBCU law school in the nation.
Howard is one of the largest HBCUs with 10,000 students and has a spirited student culture with heavy involvement in Greek life, athletics, and their famous Homecoming and Springfest.
They also have a long list of notable alumni, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, former Governor of Virginia Douglas Wilder, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison, and actor Chadwick Boseman.
Morehouse College is an all-men’s HBCU in downtown Atlanta. They are home to the Morehouse School of Medicine and are a member of the Atlanta University Center consortium with Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University.
Morehouse has roots in the Baptist Church as they originally adopted a seminary education model. However, they have since switched to a liberal arts curriculum. They are an academically rigorous institution and have produced five Rhodes Scholar, dozens of Harvard Law and Business School students, and many local leaders throughout the country.
Alumni, traditionally called “Morehouse Men,” include Martin Luther King Jr., Julian Bond, Spike Lee, Sonn Clendenon, and Samuel L. Jackson.
Spelman College is an all-women’s HBCU in Atlanta. They are also a member of the Atlanta University Center Consortium and the top-ranked HBCU in the US. They enroll the highest percentage of Gates Millenium Scholars and consistently produce Fulbright and Gilman Scholars and African American medical school students.
They have very established connections with other colleges and universities across the country and around the world to offer their students any track of study they desire.
Notable alumni include CEO Rosalind Brewer, Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker, Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Adelmann, and politician and voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams.
Florida A&M University
Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, or FAMU, is a public HBCU in Tallahassee, Florida. It is one of the largest HBCUs and is known for its athletic achievements. Their sports teams, known as the Rattlers, compete in the NCAA Division 1-FCS in a variety of both men’s and women’s sports. Their football team and basketball teams, in particular, are well-known.
FAMU offers Bachelor’s degrees in 54 fields of study, Master’s degrees in 29 fields of study, and doctoral degrees in 12 fields of study.
FAMU boasts many notable alumni, including Queer Eye host Karamo Brown, politician Andrew Gillum, and author, professor, and activist Ibram X Kendi.
What Does HBCU Stand For? Final Thoughts
HBCU stands for Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The definition is colleges or university that largely provides for black and African American students.
They offer excellent education in a diverse and supportive environment for Black and non-Black students alike.