It is no secret that Black Americans were historically not granted the privilege of an education due to the efforts of many white Americans to justify and maintain slavery. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that Historically Black Colleges or Universities (HBCUs) emerged, which gave Black Americans access to one of the most essential human rights: education.
There are currently 107 schools in the United States that are identified by the U.S. Department of Education as HBCUs, according to The Hundred-Seven, including Howard University, Morehouse College, and Florida A&M University. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that there are about 279,000 students attending HBCUs as of 2020.
If you have never heard of the acronym HBCU before and don’t know the meaning or purpose, don’t worry. This is your opportunity to understand its significance and meaning within the Black community.
The history of HBCUs began in the 19th century.
Until the 20th century, almost all established white colleges and universities denied admission to Black students. “Historically, HBCUs’ significance centered around higher-ed access for Black Americans,” Dr. Donna A. Patterson, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of History, Political Science, and Philosophy at Delaware State University and director of the Africana Studies Program, tells Her Campus. “HBCUs were created to give African Americans access to higher education when other institutions either prevented full access or only admitted one to two African Americans per year.”
This led to the passing of the Second Morrill Land Grant Act of 1890. According to Get Schooled, the 1890 act “indicated that states who wanted to use federal land-grant funds were required to either make their schools open to blacks and whites or give money for segregated black colleges to function as a substitute to white schools.” The funding helped propel 16 entirely Black colleges with 1,890 land-grant funds. There were a few HBCUs founded before the government funding, such as Lincoln University of Pennsylvania and Wilberforce University, but the 1890 Act opened doors for more HBCUs to be established.
In Title III of the Higher Education Act of 1965, Congress officially defined an HBCU as “a school of higher learning that was accredited and established before 1964, and whose principal mission was the education of African Americans.”
HBCUs still have an important meaning to the black community today.
In the present day, HBCUs have become revered within the Black community. It is considered a badge of honor to attend an HBCU. “They remain significant as they educate a sizable portion of the African American community,” Dr. Patterson says. “A large percentage of Black Americans who work in medical fields, especially as physicians and pharmacists attended HBCUs for undergraduate or professional training. Many prominent African Americans, including Thurgood Marshall, Oprah Winfrey, Kamala Harris, Ruth Simmons, Rosalind Brewer, and others attended HBCUs.”
According to HBCU First, 75% of all Black Americans with a doctorate degree, 75% of all Black officers in the armed forces, and 80% of all Black federal judges attended HBCUs. HBCUs are pivotal to the success of Black families and communities. Black Americans who attended HBCUs often urge their children to attend HBCUs as well to maintain their pipeline to create generational wealth and legacy.
Brené Carrington, an activist, Morgan State University alumna, and owner of KAUSE, a company that provides marketing and PR to culture causes (including two HBCUs, Coppin State University and Bowie State University), tells Her Campus that HBCU students will be able to learn in classroom environments less biased than those at other schools. “HBCUs provide a safe space for Black students. No longer the ever-expressed ‘minority’ while on campus, they experience education without added psychological racial confrontation or tension,” she says, adding that “HBCUs provide an opportunity to build connections within your community that you can use for support even after graduation.”
Many HBCUs still prioritize diversity on campus.
If you’re curious whether white students can attend HBCUs, the answer is yes. “At an HBCU, in general, most of the student body is African American,” Dr. Patterson says. “Of course, HBCUs also have different levels of diversity. Delaware State University, where I work, has students who are African American, White American, Latino/a, Chinese, those from many different Caribbean and African countries, and a smaller amount from Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere.” Many international students and non-black students have chosen HBCUs due to their inclusivity, diversity, and impressive academic programs.
Choosing between an HBCU and PWI can be difficult for some students.
The PWI (predominantly white institutions) vs. HBCU debate is long-standing and ongoing within the Black community today. Attending a school where you’re in the demographic minority versus the majority can have a huge impact on your academic and extracurricular life on campus.
“Historically and obviously, PWIs have had greater access to monetary resources than HBCUs,” says Carrington, who was an undergraduate HBCU student and a graduate PWI student. “For that reason, they sometimes have a wider option of academic majors. However, if you know what you want to major in or even have an idea you’re erring towards, that’s of little consequence.” She adds, “Student life at an HBCU, as opposed to a PWI, is kind of like the difference between going to your family’s cookout or going to your co-worker Bob’s picnic bash.”
Dr. Patterson points to more emphasis on African-American culture as the main difference between an HBCU and a PWI. “Generally, lots of the student life at HBCUs centers around African American cultural traditions. Both students from this background and students from other backgrounds are exposed more to these cultural traditions.” She also notes the academic difference: “Students are more likely to find faculty of African descent who teach at HBCUs,” she says.
Due to the plight of Black ancestors who didn’t have a choice where they could attend school (or whether they could at all), Black students today have the beauty of choice, and that should be respected and celebrated. Ultimately, choosing where to attend college is an entirely personal decision, and only you can make the final decision for yourself.
Black fraternities and sororities are a large part of student life at HBCUs.
Greek life is a huge part of the college experience, whether you catch them at a local party or you joined a sorority or fraternity. In the early 19th century, Greek organizations began to form to create a sense of community and opportunities for students on college campuses. Alas, these exclusive organizations barred membership to students of certain races and genders, including Black students.
“African Americans were often ostracized and banned from joining many social organizations, and soon Black students began looking to begin their own,” Carrington explains. “That exclusion produced the birth of the Black sororities and fraternity organizations, and a chance to make them our own.” In response, Black students founded the National Pan-Hellenic Council, also known as the “Divine Nine.” The “Divine Nine” is a council composed of nine historically African American fraternities and sororities and was founded in 1929. A majority of these fraternities and sororities were first founded on HBCU campuses, including the first intercollegiate sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, established in 1908 at Howard University.
Kay, 34, a Tuskegee University alumna who was a member of Delta Sigma Theta while in college, spoke to Her Campus about her experience of Greek life culture on an HBCU campus. “Members of sororities and fraternities are looked upon as being in a class by themselves,” she says. “Many people desire to be in one of the organizations but for various reasons choose not to cross [join]. It is highly competitive. Those who are a part of the organizations are privy to many perks and become a part of a bigger social circle. It mostly remains friendly.”
Carrington emphasizes not only that while professional benefits of joining Greek life may be similar in Black sororities and in predominantly white ones, but notes a key difference. “Black sororities and fraternities provide brother- and sisterhood essentially for the rest of your life,” she says. “In our community, we see professionals across companies, industry fields, and expertise use their network to support and hold each other up in the professional realm. This form of support will always be a critical benefit not just to those who join black sororities and fraternities but to the total Black community who indirectly benefit from the community services provided by these organizations.”
Should you go to an HBCU?
Finding the right school is like finding the perfect pair of shoes — you have to try them on first! Visiting and researching HBCUs will help you understand if they are for you. “My general advice is to visit or attend online interest sessions for any school that the student wishes to attend,” Dr. Patterson suggests.
Spelman College alumna and Morehouse College graduate student Jasmine, 22, tells Her Campus, “My very first visit to Spelman felt like I was at home. Accepted Students Day felt like a sleepover, and it was an immediate sisterhood.” Jasmine was deciding between attending NYU and Spelman, but her visit to the women’s HBCU was the deciding factor.
Jasmine advises students wondering if they should attend HBCUs to take the chance. “If you have the opportunity to go to an HBCU, you should,” she says. “I knew this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” She added, “It is important that wherever you choose to go has a support system. If you choose not to go to an HBCU, look into what organizations are in place for minority students.” Finding the Black Student Union, Latin Student Organization, and NAACP organizations on PWI campuses may be able to help you feel at home even when you’re not part of the majority.
In other words, research, research, research, besties!
At the end of the day, do what makes sense for you. Consider all factors when researching schools, and put yourself and what would be best for your college experience first. If you feel outside pressures to attend either an HBCU or a PWI, make sure you’re making an informed decision about what school makes the most sense for you. Once you’ve finally picked your dream school, be sure to get involved and make the most of it!
Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.