Should You Apply to an Historically Black College and University (HBCU)? What Are the Advantages?

There are many preferences to juggle when creating a college list and choosing which college you’ll ultimately attend. For some students, factors like cost, geographic location, or residential resources are top priorities. Other students might consider athletics or specific academic programs. For other students, the history of a university—and the communities on which it has historically focused—might be a priority. Students who care about the latter might wonder whether or not to attend an Historically Black College or University (HBCU). 

 

In this post we’ll outline what an HBCU is; we’ll also go through the advantages that come with attending one. If you’re considering attending an HBCU, don’t miss this post. 

 

What Is an HBCU?

While the term HBCU is sometimes thrown around as a casual phrase, it is actually a specific designation from the U.S. Department of Education. To be designated as an HBCU, a school must meet three criteria: 

 

(1) it must have been established prior to 1964,

(2) it must be accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association, and 

(3) its official mission must be to educate black Americans.

 

HBCUs are supported at the federal level in several different ways. In 2015, Congress launched the Bipartisan HBCU Caucus, which is made up of 30 Representatives who are committed to advocating for the interests of HBCUs. Additionally, HBCUs receive federal funding linked to their status as an HBCU. 

 

The designation as an HBCU is based solely on a college’s historical status. That is, all HBCUs now admit students of all races, and many now have more non-black students than black students. Still, most HBCUs continue to enroll more black students than the average college or university. To help you understand why this is, we’ll look at the benefits of attending an HBCU, both for black and non-black students. 

 

What Are the Advantages of Attending an HBCU?

Attending an HBCU is a personal decision. Students might choose to attend one because of the specific academic programs that the school offers, because of cost considerations, or because of the school’s geographical location. For many students, though, a school’s status as an HBCU can be a primary motivation in their college decision-making process. 

 

Many HBCUs are known for their student support resources. These include support systems to help students transition into college life and additional support for students graduating and entering the workforce. HBCUs recognize that these resources can be particularly critical for students who are members of historically marginalized communities or communities that have historically completed college at lower rates. And, of course, students from all backgrounds can be drawn to and benefit from these resources.

 

In addition to these specific support systems, HBCUs’ community-centered philosophy, as a 2017 article from Higher Education Today indicates, is often integral to students’ success. At many HBCUs, the belief that students can and will succeed fostered through an environment that provides family-like support. For example, the Paul Quinn College in Dallas, TX, has a motto of “We Over Me.” At Morehouse College in Georgia, students engage in peer-to-peer learning within a cohort model and are “charged with supporting one another in completing their degrees.”

 

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This approach to education—as a community project—is rooted in these schools’ specific mission to educate black Americans, who historically faced barriers to higher education. Today, though those barriers have been reduced, students facing the challenges of college still reap the benefits of this approach.

 

These tightly knit communities give rise to supportive and extensive alumni networks. In fact, graduates of HBCUs don’t just enjoy their alma mater’s alumni network—they also network draw on the entire HBCU alumni network, which collaboratively supports HBCU graduates through the HBCU Career Center. This might explain why a 2015 Gallup poll revealed that black graduates of HBCUs are more likely than black graduates of non-HBCU institutions to report that they thrive financially and socially; they also report that they have a stronger sense of purpose. 

 

HBCUs offer more than just supportive communities. They also deliver a high-quality education. While Howard University and Spelman College are widely considered the most prestigious HBCUs, a total of 10 HBCUs are in the top ranked 300 of US News’ college rankings, and 38 are in the top 150 of US News’ South Regional University Rankings list.  

 

What do the Statistics Show About HBCUs?

HBCUs are generally more affordable than the average college or university. In fact, the cost of attending an HBCU is, on average, $34,000 annually, compared to the national average of $50,000. 

 

HBCUs are not especially difficult to get into, but they are not a shoe-in either. The average acceptance rate at an HBCU is 59%. In terms of test scores, the mid-50th percentile SAT math range is 420-520 and verbal range is 430-530. Similarly, the mid-50th percentile ACT composite score range is 16-20. 

 

Finally, graduation rates, traditionally a metric used to gauge a university’s success, are a hot topic when it comes to HBCUs. Statistics on national six year graduation rates (the percentage of students who complete their degrees within six years of enrolling) suggest that only 34% of students at HBCUs graduate within this time. This is significantly below the national average of 55%. Still, HBCU supporters contend that these statistics don’t do justice to HBCUs’ strengths. 

 

A 2018 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests out that these statistics don’t account for essential differences between HBCUs and non-HBCUs. These differences include “socioeconomic status, academic preparation, or institutional disparities in revenues and wealth.” The article points to a study that accounts for these factors and finds that, when controlled for students’ backgrounds, black students at HBCUs are more likely than students from similar backgrounds who attend a primarily white institution (PWS) to graduate on time. 

 

Another study by the American Council on Education points out that the federal graduation rate is overly inclusive. The federal graduation rate includes all students, regardless of whether they enrolled exclusively full-time or they combine full- and part-time enrollment. Many students enroll at HBCUs on a part-time basis or in some combination of full- and part-time. If the graduation rate for only students who enrolled exclusively full time is considered, the graduation rate at public HBCUs is nearly 62%, and the graduation rate at private HBCUs reaches 66.7%. Both of these rates outpace the federal graduation rate of 43.9%.

 

Ultimately, the decision to attend an HBCU must be a personal one, based on a number of different factors. Some of these, like a school’s location or size, may have nothing to do with HBCU status. Others factors, like a school’s community environment or alumni network, might be directly related to a school’s status as an HBCU. No matter what factors you’re considering, you should always carefully weigh your personal and family priorities as you narrow down your college list.

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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.