A Guide to Historically Black Colleges and Universities

There’s been a resurgence of student interest in attending historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, which experts say is due to a variety of social, cultural and political factors.

After the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans at the hands of police — which sparked protests and a racial reckoning across the U.S. in 2020 — “many students started to feel a little bit insecure about their surroundings and their environment,” says Carl B. Goodman, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Bowie State University, an HBCU in Maryland. They “felt that HBCUs were a place where they were secure and that they were getting a family-like environment.”

There have been notable media boosts from famous HBCU graduates, especially within the political world, such as Vice President Kamala Harris, former Georgia state representative and two-time gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, and the late former presidential candidate and businessman Herman Cain.

HBCUs have also done a “better job of telling their stories and really making sure people understand what the outcomes are,” says Wayne A. I. Frederick, president of Howard University in Washington, D.C., one of the nation’s most well-known HBCUs.

[READ: 11 Historically Black Schools With the Highest 4-Year Graduation Rates.]

But not all students attend an HBCU for these reasons, Frederick notes. “I am of the firm belief that when you start asking students about why they came here, I think they start with the fact that it’s an excellent education and excellent opportunity. Obviously, the environment we create is somewhat unique, but that helps them be excellent as well.”

Here’s what prospective college students and their families should know about HBCUs.

Why Were HBCUs Created?

HBCUs were born out of a need to formally educate a community that had been enslaved or were children of enslaved people, who were historically barred from earning an education and enrolling, in most cases, at predominantly white institutions of higher education. Although most of these institutions were established after the Civil War, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania — known as the African Institute and the Institute for Colored Youth in its early years — became the country’s first HBCU in 1837, according to its website.

“People, many of them were Northern entities, said, ‘We are here to do what we can for you in the South because we know that education is really the best way out for your people,'” says Henry Goodgame, vice president of external relations and alumni engagement at Morehouse College, an HBCU in Georgia.

HBCUs were officially recognized under the Higher Education Act of 1965. And over the years, U.S. presidents saw their value, leading to creation of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which offers funding and programming to strengthen HBCUs, under President Jimmy Carter.

Today, there are about 100 accredited HBCUs in the United States — mostly in the South — and U.S. Virgin Islands, varying in size and academic focus. Just over half are public.

Why Are HBCUs Important?

Though HBCUs represent only about 3% of the nation’s four-year nonprofit colleges and universities, they enroll about 10% of all Black college students and generate nearly 20% of all Black graduates with a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field, according to the United Negro College Fund, a philanthropic organization that funds HBCUs and scholarships for Black students.

Not only do many students share similar backgrounds, experiences and stories with their peers, there’s also a culture of excellence at HBCUs that’s “color-blind,” Frederick says.

Many students “have attended schools at majority institutions where they were a minority and didn’t always feel comfortable,” he says. “Not just because they were in that presence, but the culture of the place was one of low expectations for students that look like them. And when they come here, we create an environment that takes away that pressure. We remove, I would say, the barriers that usually impede those students and really send them on their way to excellence.”

[READ: Diversity Questions for Colleges: What to Ask.]

In addition to providing a sense of belonging to students that may not be found at predominantly white institutions, HBCUs can also be a less-expensive option. The cost of attendance at an HBCU is 28% less than at a comparable non-HBCU, according to UNCF data. Many HBCUs have made affordability part of their mission.

For example, the public regional HBCU Delaware State University, at $8,358 for the 2022-2023 year, charged around $7,000 less for in-state students than the University of Delaware, a larger public national university an hour north. Out-of-state tuition at Delaware State is less than half of the University of Delaware’s, according to U.S. News data.

But HBCUs face numerous challenges, including a lack of resources and typically smaller endowments compared to predominantly white institutions — leading to some closures over the years.

“There’s a 300-year head start in majority institutions that we just didn’t have,” Goodgame says. “We built most of the majority institutions today on the backs of slaves. We didn’t have that as an option for historically Black colleges. We had to build it brick by brick and hope that someone would see the excellence that we were manifesting on an ongoing basis and say, ‘Hey, I’d like to invest in that.'”

HBCUs are also funded “differently” compared to predominately white institutions, with many depending more heavily on tuition for revenue, Frederick says. About 70% of students at HBCUs are eligible for federal Pell Grants, higher than the 37% rate of students at non-HBCUs, according to UNCF data.

Many HBCU students “don’t have the ability to provide tuition, so we need private support,” he says. “We produce graduates who are excellent, the vast majority of whom also go into their community and provide great service. They tend to be very well accomplished, but they also get into a system where because of their skin color, they actually are paid less. So their wealth accumulation is less and therefore what they are able to give back to support our institutions is less.”

Deciding Whether an HBCU Is Right for You

Despite being originally designed to meet the needs of Black students, HBCUs are open to all students and are increasingly diverse. Twenty-four percent of HBCU students identified as non-Black in 2020, for instance, compared with 15% in 1976, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

[Read: Diversity in College and Why It Matters.]

Though institutions vary, prospective college students can expect HBCU campuses to be culturally rich, experts say, with demonstrative marching bands, lively homecoming events and Greek life characterized by step shows, social events and service projects.

Students considering an HBCU should go through the same checklist they would for any other school. Experts advise setting up a campus tour, understanding admissions standards, researching available academic programs and reading about alumni the institution has produced.

“I would say really try to either go online and ask to speak with individuals who are … matriculating in those programs or take a look at those who graduated from those programs,” Goodman says. “See how things were when they were there and what opportunities being in those programs led them to.”

Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.

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A Guide to Historically Black Colleges and Universities originally appeared on usnews.com

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