What Are HBCUs and Why Are They Important?

Historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, offer valuable educational opportunities to a variety of students. These educational institutions create unique communities with an emphasis on culture and history. If you’re considering a college or university for your undergraduate or graduate studies, an HBCU might just be the right fit, but it’s important to understand the details of these unique schools. From answering the question, “What is an HBCU?” to discuss where you can find these schools, this page will cover all of the important details.

What Is a Historically Black College and University (HBCU)?

What are HBCUs? HBCUs are schools established expressly to serve the educational needs of Black Americans. Prior to the time of their establishment, there was no structured higher education system for Black students. The first HBCU was founded in 1837. HBCUs were born out of a time when Black students were barred from attending traditional colleges and universities due to segregation. Now, HBCUs educate a racially diverse student body and offer a rich cultural history to their students. 

HBCUs not only offer students a quality education but also culture and history. They work to foster appreciation of Black culture and help to prepare students for successful careers and lives after graduation. HBCUs are designed to give students opportunities that they might not have elsewhere because of financial or educational hardship. 

HBCU degree options vary. Many HBCU bachelor’s degree options include a focus on STEM subjects, like biological sciences, physical sciences and agricultural science. Just like traditional schools, you can also pursue an HBCU master’s degree program or even online courses at an HBCU. 

Attending a Predominantly White Institution (PWI) vs HBCU

There are both pros and cons to attending a predominantly white institution (PWI) compared to attending an HBCU. Understanding the differences between a PWI and an HBCU may help you to determine which type of school is better for you. 

Both types of institutions offer quality education opportunities, groups, organizations and social groups like sororities and fraternities. However, the institutions are significantly different when it comes to the types of communities they create and even social and racial tensions. Educational inequalities can still be present in PWIs, and students may have to deal with microaggressions and negative stereotypes. 

There isn’t a simple answer as to which type of institution is right for you. Instead, it’s important to consider your education goals and the type of environment and community in which you want to study. 

History of HBCUs

The history of historically Black colleges and universities begins in the 19th century. John Chavis became the first Black American on record to attend college when he was admitted to Washington and Lee University in 1799, but such an event was rare. For Black students, there were few to no opportunities to access a higher education. Both public and private institutes of higher education excluded Black students. 

In 1837, Quaker philanthropist Richard Humphreys established the first HBCU, now known as Cheyney University in Pennsylvania. Its goal was to teach Black American students the skills they would need for employment. This school’s establishment was a milestone for Black education, and additional schools followed. 

Black churches, supported by the American Missionary Association and Freedmen’s Bureau, were responsible for establishing some of the first colleges for Black students. The second Morrill Act of 1890 further helped support the establishment of Black colleges by requiring states to offer land grants to establish schools for Black students who weren’t allowed to attend other schools within the states. This act resulted in the foundation of many HBCUs.

HBCUs have faced many challenges. They’ve survived issues like limited funding, accreditation challenges and even the Jim Crow laws. However, these schools have endured and continue to offer education and opportunities today not only to Black students but to all students. 

Origin of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

The origin of HBCUs can be traced back to the goal of giving Black students educational opportunities that they couldn’t access anywhere else. After Richard Humphreys founded the first HBCU in the country in 1837, others followed suit. The Miner Normal School in Washington, D.C., Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and Wilberforce in Ohio were all founded in the 1850s. 

From 1865 to 1900, HBCUs saw significant growth. The growth was greatest in 1867, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, when nine HBCUs were founded in a single year. 

The foundation of HBCUs continued for more than a century, with schools like the J.F. Drake State Technical College, University of the Virgin Islands and Southern University at Shreveport were established in the 1960s. 

Today, HBCUs encompass a large variety of classifications, including public, private, denominational, liberal arts and land-grant universities. They range in size and enrollment, from fewer than 300 students to more than 11,000 students. 

Legacy of HBCUs

What is the biggest HBCU? By enrollment, North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro is the largest HBCU, with more than 12,000 students. Florida A&M University and Howard University are the next largest schools. While a large school can certainly have an impressive legacy, all HBCUs have contributed to important and notable accomplishments and graduated well-known alumni. 

HBCUs have established an impressive legacy. HBCU alumni include many famous public figures: 

  • W.E.B. Du Bois, Fisk University
  • Ralph Ellison, Tuskegee University
  • Martin Luther King Jr., Morehouse College
  • Thurgood Marshall, Howard University
  • Ruth Simmons, Dillard University
  • Oprah Winfrey, Tennessee State University
  • Mo’Nique, Morgan State University
  • Lionel Richie, Tuskegee University
  • Spike Lee, Morehouse College
  • Jennifer Hudson, Langston University

On January 3, 2019, North Carolina Representative Alma Adams spoke out in support of HBCUs, saying that despite only educating 10% of Black college students, HBCUs support:

  • 27% of all Black American STEM graduates
  • 40% of all Black American engineers
  • 50% of all Black American lawyers
  • 50% of all Black American public school teachers
  • 80% of all Black American judges

Representative Adams is an alumna of North Carolina A&T State University. 

The Black College Football Hall of Fame announced the HBCU Legacy Bowl in March of 2021. This Legacy Bowl is a postseason game that will take place at Tulane University. It will be held the Saturday after the Super Bowl and will feature NFL draft-eligible HBCU football players.

Why Are HBCUs Still Significant Today?

There is an increased need for HBCUs today, thanks to the unique opportunities these schools provide. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund notes that 9% of Black college students attend HBCUs today. HBCUs award 22% of the bachelor’s degrees earned by Black students. 

HBCUs also provide valuable STEM-focused education opportunities. HBCU bachelor’s degrees in STEM areas account for 20% of all STEM bachelor’s degrees earned by Black graduates (PDF, 629 KB), according to the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). 

And beyond education, HBCUs provide a diverse and inclusive student experience. These schools create an environment that is safe for all students, and they’re known for providing excellent student support. 

While HBCUs welcome a variety of students, the majority of HBCU students are first-generation, low-income students. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund notes that more than 75% of HBCU students depend on Pell Grants while almost 13% of HBCU students depend on PLUS Loans to be able to afford their education. Attending an HBCU is more affordable than attending a traditional school, too. In fact, the UNCF reports that attending an HBCU costs 28% less than it would cost to attend a similar non-HBCU school (PDF, 629 KB).

A Gallup poll found that HBCU graduates were more likely to be thriving in financial and social well-being than graduates of non-HBCU schools (PDF, 147 KB), making a bachelor’s or HBCU graduate degree a promising investment.

The HBCU Experience

HBCUs deliver a unique Black college experience. HBCUs strive to create supportive, engaging environments. You may be surrounded by students from many geographic locations, and you will have the chance to learn from a variety of mentors and educators. 

The experience you will have at school will vary depending on the HBCU that you attend, but many of these schools provide rich, engaging academic and social experiences. Clubs and organizations may give you the chance to get involved and even explore leadership opportunities. HBCU homecoming events and commencement celebrations can provide an opportunity to celebrate accomplishments while still being grounded in history.

Many HBCUs also give you the chance to join historically Black sororities and fraternities. These Black Greek letter organizations began back in the early 1900s. The Greek organizations at traditionally white institutions excluded Black students from joining, so Black students started their own. 

Today, the Divine Nine historically Black fraternities and sororities include: 

  • Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity
  • Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority
  • Delta Sigma Theta Sorority
  • Iota Phi Theta Fraternity
  • Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity
  • Omega Psi Phi Fraternity
  • Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity
  • Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority
  • Zeta Phi Beta Sorority

Founded on the principle of service, these fraternities and sororities may provide valuable opportunities to get involved in the HBCU Greek experience and to form strong bonds with your peers. 

How Many HBCUs Are There in the United States? 

The U.S. Department of Education recognizes more than 102 HBCUs. These schools are primarily located in the southeast, but students can choose to attend HBCUs in Pennsylvania, Maryland or even the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

These schools offer an array of HBCU bachelor’s degrees and HBCU master’s degree programs, including online education options. With more than 100 institutions, it may seem impossible to create a comprehensive list of HBCUs. When looking into the right HBCU, consider looking for schools in a state or region you are interested in, ones that have a program you want to study and, of course, one that offers the degree you are seeking, be it a bachelor’s, master’s or another degree. 


There is a lot to learn and understand about HBCUs and what they can offer students. We’ve answered some of the most frequently asked questions about HBCUs below. 

What Makes a College an HBCU?

The Higher Education Act of 1965 defines an HBCU as “any historically Black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of Black Americans, and that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association determined by the Secretary.” Are all Black colleges HBCUs? Not necessarily, depending on when they were established. Newly founded colleges don’t fit this definition of an HBCU. 

Where Are HBCUs Located?

There are 102 HBCUs in operation today, and they’re located in 19 states. HBCUs tend to be concentrated within the southeastern region of the United States, ranging as far west as Texas and as far north as Pennsylvania. Maryland, Florida and Arkansas are home to four HBCUs each. The University of the District of Columbia and Howard University are both located in the District of Columbia, and if you’re looking for a more remote location, you may want to consider the University of the Virgin Islands.

Can Anyone Apply to an HBCU?

HBCUs were originally established with the goal of educating Black students. However, students of all races can enroll in these schools. In addition to the traditionally Black enrollment at HBCUs, many of these schools are actively promoting increased diversity. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in 2018, non-black students accounted for 24% of the students enrolled at HBCUs. In 1976, non-Black students accounted for just 15% of students in HBCUs. 

What Are the Advantages of an HBCU?

Why are HBCUs still around today? They continue to be popular because of the many advantages they offer to students. The UNCF reports that the cost of attending an HBCU is 28% less than the cost of attending a similar non-HBCU, making HBCUs a highly affordable education option. The UNCF report also notes that Black HBCU graduates reported that they received better support and engagement at an HBCU school when compared to their peers who attended non-HBCUs.

Last updated May 2022