What Is an HBCU?

Learn About Historically Black Colleges & Universities

Founders Library at Howard University
Founders Library at Howard University. Flickr Vision / Getty Images

Historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, encompass a wide range of institutions of higher learning. There are currently 101 HBCUs in the United States, and they range from two-year community colleges to research universities that grant doctoral degrees. Most of the schools were founded shortly after the Civil War in an effort to provide African Americans access to higher education.

What Is a Historically Black College or University?

HBCUs exist because of the United State's history of exclusion, segregation, and racism.

With the end of slavery following the Civil War, African American citizens faced numerous challenges gaining access to higher education. Financial barriers and admissions policies made attendance at many colleges and universities nearly impossible for the majority of African Americans. As a result, both federal legislation and the efforts of church organizations worked to create institutions of higher learning that would provide access to African American students.

The great majority of HBCUs were founded between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the end of the 19th century. That said, Lincoln University (1854) and Cheyney University (1837), both in Pennsylvania, were established well before the end of slavery. Other HBCUs such as Norfolk State University (1935) and Xavier University of Louisiana (1915) were founded in the 20th century.

The colleges and universities are called "historically" black because ever since the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, HBCUs have been open to all applicants and have worked to diversify their student bodies.

While many HBCUs still have predominantly black student populations, others do not. For example, Bluefield State College is 86% white and just 8% black. Kentucky State University's student population is roughly half African American. However, it is more common for an HBCU to have a student body that is well over 90% black.

Examples of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

HBCUs are as diverse as the students who attend them. Some are public while others are private. Some are small liberal arts colleges while others are large research universities. Some are secular, and some are affiliated with a church. You'll find HBCUs that have a majority white student population while most have large African American enrollments. Some HBCUs offer doctoral programs, while some are two-year schools offering associate degrees. Below are a few examples that capture the range of HBCUs:

  • Simmons College of Kentucky is a tiny college of just 203 students with ties to the American Baptist Church. The student population is 100% African American.
  • North Carolina A&T is a relatively large public university with over 11,000 students. Along with robust bachelor degree programs ranging from the arts to engineering, the school also has numerous master's and doctoral programs.
  • Lawson State Community College in Birmingham, Alabama, is a two-year community college offering certificate programs and associate degrees in areas such as engineering technology, health professions, and business.
  • Xavier University of Louisiana is a private Roman Catholic university with 3,000 students enrolled in bachelor, master's and doctoral programs.
  • Tougaloo College in Mississippi is a private liberal arts college of of 860 students. The college is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, although it describes itself as "church related, but not church controlled."

Challenges Facing Historically Black Colleges and Universities

As a result of affirmative action, civil rights legislation, and changing attitudes towards race, colleges and universities across the United States are actively working to enroll qualified African American students. This access to educational opportunities across the country is obviously a good thing, but it has had consequences for HBCUs. Even though there are over 100 HBCUs in the country, less than 10% of all African American college students actually attend an HBCU. Some HBCUs are struggling to enroll enough students, and roughly 20 colleges have closed in the last 80 years.

More are likely to close in the future because of enrollment declines and fiscal crises.

Many HBCUs also face challenges with retention and persistence. The mission of many HBCUs—to provide access to higher education to populations that have historically been underrepresented and disadvantaged—creates its own hurdles. While it is clearly worthwhile and admirable to provide opportunities for students, the results can be discouraging when a significant percentage of matriculated students are ill-prepared to succeed in college-level coursework. Texas Southern University, for example, has just a 6% four-year graduation rate, Southern University in New Orleans has a 5% rate, and numbers in the low teens and single digits are not unusual.

The Best HCBUs

While the challenges facing many HCBUs are significant, some schools are flourishing. Spelman College (a women's college) and Howard University tend to top the national rankings of HCBUs. Spelman, in fact, has the highest graduation rate of any Historically Black College, and it also tends to win high marks for social mobility. Howard is a prestigious research university that grants hundreds of doctoral degrees every year.

Other notable Historically Black Colleges and Universities include Morehouse College (a men's college), Hampton University, Florida A&M, Claflin University, and Tuskegee University. You'll find impressive academic programs and rich co-curricular opportunities at these schools, and you'll also find that the overall value tends to be high.

You can find more top picks in our list of the top HBCUs

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Grove, Allen. "What Is an HBCU?" ThoughtCo, Dec. 1, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-an-hbcu-4155322. Grove, Allen. (2017, December 1). What Is an HBCU? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-an-hbcu-4155322 Grove, Allen. "What Is an HBCU?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-an-hbcu-4155322 (accessed December 13, 2017).