College Guide for HBCU Students
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Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were established to educate Black students in the United States. HBCUs offer education and mentorship opportunities with a goal to uplift Black communities. Over 100 HBCUs can be found across the country and are accessible to all students.
HBCUs contribute significantly to the graduation rates of Black students. The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) reports that — despite making up just 3% of the accredited colleges and universities in the U.S. — HBCUs educated about 10% of Black students nationwide and awarded about 17% of the bachelor's degrees earned by African American students in 2014.
This guide provides helpful information and resources for aspiring HBCU students.
Key Trends for HBCU Students
Black student enrollment rises: Black enrollment at HBCUs increased by 15% from 1976 to 2019, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). HBCUs enroll roughly 300,000 students each year. Seventy-six percent of students at these schools identify as Black or African American.
Degrees earned: In 2018-19, NCES reported over 48,000 students earned degrees from HBCUs. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the overall percentage of African Americans, ages 25 and over, with a bachelor's degree or higher increased from 19.8% to 26.1% from 2010 to 2019.
Large number of Black STEM graduates: According to UNCF, about 25% of African Americans with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degrees graduated from HBCUs. Additionally, in 2020, the National Science Foundation established a center to learn from the successes that top HBCUs have achieved in terms of undergraduate STEM education.
Top professions represented by HBCU graduates: According to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, 80% of Black judges, 50% of Black lawyers, 40% of Black members of Congress, and 40% of Black engineers graduated from HBCUs.
What are some promising trends you see from your study of HBCUs (or your professional experience at an HBCU)?
Dr. Kimberly Brown Pellum
"Those who were once unaware of the priceless value of HBCUs are awakening. Corporate entities and private donors are increasing support, while alumni giving is also on the rise. For so long, HBCUs have done much more with much less. We've nurtured the minds and talents of history-making ministers like Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth. Hollywood blockbuster producers like Rob Hardy and Will Packer. Global moguls like Diddy and Oprah. Art connoisseurs and philanthropists like Bernard and Shirley Kinsey. If the current trends continue, the possibilities are endless."
Challenges and Barriers to Success
Black representation matters: It is common for Black students and faculty members to be underrepresented at U.S. colleges and universities. Black representation at HBCUs can help create inclusive college campuses for students.
At HBCUs, on average, Black students make up about 80% of the enrollment, according to UNCF. The percentage of Black faculty members is also much higher on an HBCU campus compared to primarily white institutions. Black students may find it easier to seek out role models and mentors among HBCU faculty members. These connections can help with a student's college success.
Financial burden for Black students: Gaps in federal and private funding can have an impact on HBCUs and their students. Black students rely more heavily on loans to pay tuition costs. According to NCES, Black students take out student loans at higher rates than students of other races. Black students may also take more time to pay off student loan debts than non-Black students. Pay disadvantages after graduation can be one contributing factor to this. Taking longer to pay off loan debts also can limit wealth gain.
Low graduation rates: Black students at public colleges and universities have lower six-year completion rates than other students across the country. Some HBCUs, such as Spelman College and Howard University, boast graduation rates above 50%. However, HBCUs have an average graduation rate of about 35%. Despite these lower rates, HBCUs still graduate more lower-income Black students than other U.S. colleges and universities.
Enrollment and school funding: HBCUs increasingly experience hardships when it comes to obtaining financial funding. As a result, some HBCUs find it challenging to remain open. They may be forced to close their doors or find alternative ways to fund their institutions. Despite these difficulties, many students and alumni talk about how they value their HBCU education.
COVID-19 pandemic: COVID-19 hit the African American community hard. Like other schools, HBCUs were forced to close their doors for months. This limited their ability to receive necessary funding from student tuition fees. Students also lost housing and food resources. The impact of COVID-19 on student and institutional success continues, with more challenges for HBCU communities ahead.
In your view, what is the biggest challenge facing HBCU students today?
Dr. Kimberly Brown Pellum
"Students, regardless of where they attend, HBCU or otherwise, are facing incredible amounts of debt post-graduation. I hope those interested in giving young people a fair start begin to address the loan crisis. And I hope those who elect to pay for college choose wisely and attend universities that have demonstrated a long record of values similar to their own."
Important Factors to Consider When Preparing for College
Choosing a College
Many factors must be considered when choosing a college. Geographic location, tuition cost, and degree options are just a few crucial variables. The importance of Black representation through cultural connection, student experience, and faculty mentorship are also top factors for many considering an HBCU.
Applying to College
Begin your college application process before your senior year of high school. Gathering letters of recommendation, writing personal statements, and taking required tests involve careful planning. The Common Black College Application allows students to submit one application to over 60 HBCUs for a small, one-time fee.
Paying for College
College tuition costs can be a heavy burden. Financial aid can alleviate the need to pay high out-of-pocket costs. Scholarships for Black students can help offset some tuition fees. Other financial aid options for students of color include grants, work-study programs, fellowships, and loans.
College Groups for HBCU Students
HBCU Greek life: Sororities and fraternities hold historical and modern prominence at HBCUs. Nine Greek organizations operate under the National Pan-Hellenic Council. These groups can build connections through service and leadership. Dubbed the "Divine Nine," each chapter offers unique opportunities for HBCU students to grow together as a family unit.
STEM societies: Organizations such as the National Society of Black Engineers support the development of Black STEM students at HBCUs. These societies focus on growing and uplifting Black STEM graduates and professionals.
Black campus ministries: Serving thousands of students across the country, these campus groups provide fellowship and academic support. Ministry chapters can expand beyond HBCU campuses to develop faith-based connections among Black students.
What aspect of student life do you enjoy the most?
"I love how the classes are like a family. Your professors care and take a vested interest in you. You are a person and not a number. Howard University also has the best homecoming in the nation so I am looking forward to taking part in that experience."
Organizations and Resources That Support HBCU Students
Frequently Asked Questions About HBCUs
How hard is it to get into an HBCU?
HBCUs vary in their acceptance rates. Many require a GPA of 2.0 or higher for acceptance. Acceptance rates for some HBCUs can drop below 40%. These schools require an admissions package that typically includes high school transcripts, a letter of recommendation, and a personal statement.
Are there scholarships for HBCU students?
Scholarships of all types can be found for HBCU students. HBCUs offer many scholarships to enrolling students. Organizations supporting HBCUs also offer scholarships to African American students. Some awards are based on merit, while others go to students demonstrating a financial need. Financial aid can provide assistance to cover all or part of HBCU tuition fees. With the high cost of college tuition, scholarships can offer much-needed financial assistance.
What percentage of Black college students attend HBCUs?
According to UNCF, HBCUs enroll 10% of all Black college students in the United States. Although HBCUs make up just 3% of accredited colleges and universities in the country, they account for almost 20% of Black graduates.
Why do students attend HBCUs?
Students attend HBCUs for a variety of reasons. For many, the history of HBCUs has demonstrated the critical need for HBCUs among Black communities. Some students find support and mentorship at HBCUs, which have a higher percentage of Black professors than primarily white institutions. The community support among Black students also draws many to the HBCU experience. Additionally, HBCUs may offer lower tuition rates, especially to in-state students attending a public school. This can give students more financial flexibility when pursuing a college education.
Meet the Student
Asha Boyce, 19, is from Houston, Texas. Being the daughter of an artist and movie producer, TJ Boyce, she has a natural talent for acting and singing, but her career goal is to help those affected by mental illness. Asha is currently a first-year student at Howard University studying psychology.
Meet the Faculty
Dr. Kimberly Brown Pellum
With a terminal degree in United States history from Howard University, Kimberly Brown Pellum specializes in the history of women's images, Southern culture, and the Black Freedom Struggle. Her contributions to publicly accessible history include work at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, The National Park Service, The Rosa Parks Museum, and Google's Arts & Culture series. Kimberly is currently a member of the faculty in the Department of History at Florida A&M University.
Feature Image: Peter Cade / Stone / Getty Images