In a nation where black students integrating schools were met with riots in the 1960s, historically black colleges and universities have been instrumental in the education of African Americans. These schools, known as HBCUs, served a student population that other institutions overwhelmingly refused.
It was nearly 100 years after the Civil War ended when white colleges began to open their doors to African American students. In the absence of access to those institutions, schools serving freed slaves cropped up, typically with a focus on vocational skills.
“It really was a response to the time of the mid-1800s, to the latter 1800s, where African Americans took their educational aspirations in their own hands, which developed the historically black colleges and universities,” explains Joseph Montgomery, vice president for enrollment management and student success at Tuskegee University, an HBCU in Alabama.
While some colleges did accept black students before emancipation, those schools were the exception, not the norm.
How HBCUs Are Recognized
Historically black colleges and universities were officially recognized under the Higher Education Act of 1965. Individual presidents recognized the value of HBCUs over the years, leading to the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which has offered funding and programming to help strengthen this often under-resourced sector.
There are around 100 HBCUs across the U.S., a number that has declined over the years with some of those colleges closing. And while the mission and values of HBCUs may be largely shared across the board, these schools can vary greatly.
“We are not monolithic, whatsoever. We all have our individual histories, we all have our strengths and our weaknesses,” says Anthony E. Jones, associate provost and assistant vice president of enrollment management at Howard University, an HBCU in Washington, D.C.
The Role of HBCUs in Higher Education Today
Writing in 2015, Michael Lomax of the United Negro College Fund argued that HBCUs are more important than ever.
Lomax, the fund’s president and CEO, broke his case down into six points: the lower average tuition cost of HBCUs; their success in meeting the needs of low-income and first-generation students; the potential to lower wealth disparity along racial lines; a supportive campus climate; the HBCU track record for postgraduate employment; and how the values of these institutions align with those of their students.
At Tuskegee, Montgomery sees the impact on students daily. “We still serve a large number of students who are financially dependent on government assistance to educate themselves: first-generation students, low-income students.”
That’s also true on the graduate level, says Dr. Hugh E. Mighty, dean of the College of Medicine at Howard and vice president, clinical affairs.
“A significant number of our students are financially challenged,” Mighty says.
He adds that Howard is willing to take chances on students with lower test scores for medical school, but has a history of steering students to academic success and placing them in hospitals to begin careers. “We may take students who begin with lower test scores, but we are graduating them and placing them into residency programs at the same rate as the rest of the nation.”
Jones notes that HBCUs, on average, cost less than many comparable, primarily white institutions, easing the pain of paying for college. “Any student or family today that is thinking about a four-year degree has to at the same time be thinking about cost and investment.”
By the numbers, UNCF research suggests that HBCUs have an outsized effect on the education of black students.
A 2019 UNCF report, titled HBCUs Punching Above Their Weight, looked at 21 states and territories with HBCUs. Those schools enrolled 24% of all black undergraduates in four-year programs, and awarded 26% of bachelor’s degrees and 32% of STEM degrees at the bachelor’s level to black students — despite comprising only 9% of the four-year undergraduate population. STEM refers to the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
Despite these successes, challenges remain for HBCUs.
A 2018 Government Accountability Office report highlighted issues of deferred maintenance and infrastructure needs at HBCUs. Other issues include declining enrollment in the sector, significantly lower endowments than primarily white institutions and lagging financial resources. As a result, some HBCUs find themselves struggling to maintain accreditation, particularly smaller regional schools.
Nonetheless, advocates of HBCUs see signs of optimism, such as recent increases in federal funding.
Campus Culture at HBCUs
Campus culture varies by institution, but students can expect HBCUs to be rooted in the African American experience. HBCU graduates played important roles in the Civil Rights movement and advancing literature, arts and culture.
HBCUs count Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Oprah Winfrey, Toni Morrison and Samuel L. Jackson among scores of renowned alumni. Many of the institutions experienced a surge in attendance and popularity with the television success of “The Cosby Show” and its spinoff, “A Different World,” in the 1980s and early 1990s.
“HBCUs do, in a great way, mirror the cultural value system of the African American community,” Jones says.
Jones sees this reflected in the significance of elders on campus, a communal environment and a commitment to social justice.
Some HBCUs were founded by missionaries or religious institutions both white and black, with such ties to faith important to many students and their families.
“There is still a heavy presence of religious life on campus,” Montgomery says, which may include chapel service at some schools.
Jones describes HBCU campuses as culturally rich, noting legendary marching bands, lively homecoming events and vibrant Greek life characterized by “step” shows, social events and service projects.
Montgomery says HBCUs are welcoming academic homes for black students.
Matriculating at an HBCU may be the first time some black students have been part of a majority in school, Jones says. “Socially, or culturally, they may have had to make some compromises or adjustments, whereas when that student is looking for a four-year experience, it could be attractive to them to be on a campus where there doesn’t have to be compromises, where there’s an ease of adjustment.”
Despite the historic missions of these schools, HBCUs are open to nonblack students.
“Our universities have always been very open to allow others to come,” Montgomery says.
Finding the Right Fit
Alijah Steele, a senior aerospace engineer major at Tuskegee, was initially interested in attending Auburn University in his home state of Alabama or Mississippi State University. But a visit to Tuskegee won him over. Now he’s one of the university’s student ambassadors who leads prospective students on such visits.
“They know of HBCUs, but they don’t know the opportunities that HBCUs offer,” Steele says.
He points to a rich campus culture and opportunities for internships and job placement after graduation as selling points for him.
Students considering an HBCU should go through the same checklist they would for other schools, experts say.
“I don’t think it’s largely different than how a student might determine if any school is a fit,” Jones says.
Experts encourage prospective students to look at the academic programs, take a campus visit and meet with faculty. They should also consider what support systems are in place, the faculty-to-student ratio and extracurricular activities.
Steele emphasizes that students should speak up during visits and ask the questions on their minds.
“No question is a wrong question, no question is a dumb question, because this will be your first time ever attending college,” Steele says.
Montgomery considers HBCUs a valuable launching pad for students who want to blaze their own paths.
“Tuskegee is a historic place,” he says, “but we still have opportunities for you to make history now.”
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