HBCUs Close Socioeconomic Gaps. Here’s How.

A recent report shows HBCUs are driving the social mobility of Black graduates better than other institutions.

Updated December 2, 2021

HBCUs Close Socioeconomic Gaps. Here’s How.
Opinion & Analysis
Photo by Klaus Vedfelt / DigitalVision / Getty Images

  • HBCU’s educate roughly 10% of all Black students.
  • Because HBCUs most commonly serve low-income Black students, they help facilitate larger socioeconomic gains.
  • HBCU grads earn more over their careers than other Black grads.

Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are leading the charge in closing gaps in socioeconomic outcomes for their alumni. A new report by the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) found that HBCUs are driving the social mobility of Black individuals more effectively than other institutions.

To determine this, UNCF used data from Opportunity Insights, a not-for-profit research organization at Harvard University. They calculated "access rates," "success rates," and "mobility rates" for more than 1,000 public and private nonprofit four-year institutions, including 50 HBCUs.

Researchers found that because HBCUs most commonly serve low-income Black students, they help facilitate larger socioeconomic gains for their alumni than non-HBCUs. Non-HBCU institutions tend to have smaller populations of low-income students which results in limited opportunities for alumni to experience more dramatic socioeconomic changes.

The report also disproves the commonly held belief that traditionally elite institutions are the only ones that offer opportunities for upward social mobility. When researchers compared mobility rates of HBCUs to nationwide rates among all four-year college and university graduates, among Ivy League graduates, and among non-college goers, they found that HBCUs outperformed all other categories.

HBCUs Provide Better Access to Higher Education

Though accredited HBCUs only account for 3% of postsecondary institutions in U.S., these colleges and universities educate roughly 10% of all Black college students and once accounted for 80% of Black judges and 50% of Black doctors and lawyers.

Access to higher education has often been the biggest barrier for Black students interested in pursuing a postsecondary degree. HBCUs were initially founded in the 1800s to provide educational opportunities to Black students when they were unwelcome at existing institutions.

Although HBCUs' popularity declined when more schools opened their doors to nonwhite students, HBCUs continued their mission to primarily serve the educational needs of Black students. HBCUs have since experienced a resurgence and now hold strong enrollment figures amid national enrollment declines.

Today, HBCUs also offer the highest rate of access of any other institution type, according to the UNCF report. Access is determined by looking at the percentage of students who come from the bottom 40% of income distribution.

Institution Average Access Rate
HBCU 51.3%
Nationwide 22.5%
Ivy Plus 9.3%

Source: UNCF; The report's "Ivy Plus" category includes the eight Ivy League schools as well as Stanford University, Duke University, University of Chicago, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

HBCUs offer more than double the rate of access for low-income students than the national average and more than five times the rate of access than Ivy Plus institutions. More than 70% of HBCU students qualify for Pell Grants and 39% are first-generation college students.

HBCU Graduates Have Increased Earning Potential and Mobility

On average, HBCU graduates working full time throughout their career can expect to earn $927,000 in additional income as opposed to non-college goers and Black students at non-HBCUs, according to UNCF. This is 56% more in expected earnings than students without HBCU credentials.

But lifetime career earnings aren't the only area where Black students at HBCUs shine. The percentage of college students who start in the bottom 40% of income distribution and transition to the top 60% is highest in HBCU graduates. This is otherwise known as rate of mobility.

Institution Average Rate of Mobility
HBCU 34.3%
Nationwide 15.8%
Ivy Plus 7.4%
Non-College Goers 20.4%

Source: UNCF

Mobility rates for HBCU graduates are more than double the national average and more than four times the rate of mobility for Ivy Plus graduates.

One of the main purposes of higher education has historically been its ability to drive economic and social mobility. For decades, many believed that this was best achieved at traditionally elite institutions like the Ivy League.

But over the last few years, new research has shown this isn't always the case. And these mobility rates further prove other institutions — and especially HBCUs — are offering Black and low-income students more opportunities for lifetime growth.