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Historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, are schools that were founded on the belief that everyone deserves access to a college education. More specifically, 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.”

Most HBCUs were established after the American Civil War, often with the assistance of northern religious missionary organizations. However, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania (1837) and Lincoln University (Pennsylvania) (1854), were established for Blacks before the American Civil War. In 1856 the African Methodist Episcopal Church of Ohio collaborated with the Methodist Episcopal Church, a predominantly white denomination, in sponsoring the third college Wilberforce University in Ohio. Established in 1865, Shaw University was the first HBCU in the South to be established after the American Civil War.

The Morrill Act in 1862 provided for land grant colleges in each state. Some educational institutions in the North or West were open to Blacks before the Civil War. But 17 states, mostly in the South, had segregated systems and generally excluded Black students from their land grant colleges. In response, Congress passed the second Morrill Act of 1890, also known as the Agricultural College Act of 1890, requiring states to establish a separate land grant college for Blacks if Blacks were being excluded from the existing land grant college.

Many of the HBCUs were founded by states to satisfy the Second Morrill Act. These land grant schools continue to receive annual federal funding for their research, extension and outreach activities. The Higher Education Act of 1965 established a program for direct federal grants to HBCUs, including federal matching of private endowment contributions.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed an executive order to distribute adequate resources and funds to strengthen the nation’s HBCUs. His executive order manifested the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (WHIHBCU) which is a federally funded program that operates within the U.S. Department of Education.

According to a study published by the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), historically Black colleges and universities are responsible for producing approximately 70 percent of all Black doctors and dentists, 50 percent of Black engineers and public school teachers, and 35 percent of Black lawyers.

Graduates have left their marks on the culture and politics in the United States and around the globe. Most notably are such graduates as the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Toni Morrison (Nobel Prize Winners), Oprah Winfrey (Billionaire, Media Mogul and Icon), the late Thurgood Marshall (first African-American Supreme Court justice), Kwame Nkrumah (the first democratically elected President of Ghana),Yolanda Adams and Shirley Caesar (Gospel Recording Artists), and the list goes on.

There are more than 100 HBCUs in the United States, including public and private institutions and law and medical schools. These schools do, however, admit students of all races. If you’re considering adding an HBCU to the list of colleges to which you’re applying, here’s a look at just a few of the reasons why one of these schools could be right for you.

A first-rate education

Some of the best colleges and universities in the country are HBCUs. Schools such as Hampton University, Howard University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College all have a long and illustrious history of offering African-American students a world-class education.

Caring professors and faculty

The aforementioned top-notch education you’ll find at an HBCU is delivered by a host of accomplished and caring professors and faculty. Case in point: Dr. Fred A. Bonner II, a prominent scholar whose research focuses on African-American males, recently left Rutgers University to accept a position at Prairie View A&M, where he’ll continue his work on initiatives such as the HBCU Deans Think-Tank and the Black Male Summit.

Classes and extracurricular activities tailored to African-Americans

Many HBCUs offer classes and extracurricular activities that can be harder to come by at other schools. Students often find that the courses offered at an HBCU give them a one-of-a-kind opportunity to explore African-American history and experiences.

A supportive atmosphere

At an HBCU, you’ll find people who come from similar backgrounds and circumstances and who have had similar cultural experiences. There’s an atmosphere of community and collaboration among the student body, and the professors and faculty will be there to help nurture and guide you throughout your college education.


HBCUs do primarily serve African-American students, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to have a limited cultural experience. On the contrary, people from all over the world come to the United States to attend HBCUs, which results in diverse student bodies.


As previously mentioned, HBCUs were established specifically with the goal of increasing African-Americans’ access to a college education, so students attending these schools can and should feel empowered by the fact that they’re actively defending and taking advantage of their rights.

A chance to continue the legacy

If your parents, grandparents, and/or other family members attended an HBCU and you decide to follow suit, you can take pride in the fact that you’re continuing an important legacy. Of course, that shouldn’t be the only factor that plays into where you decide to attend college, but if you do end up at a loved one’s alma mater, you’ll be taking part in a meaningful family tradition.

Alumni associations for graduates of all HBCUs

Though most schools have their own individual alumni associations, there are also several alumni associations which graduates of any HBCU can join, such as the National HBCU Alumni Association, the DC Metro HBCU Alumni Alliance, and the Atlanta HBCU Alumni Alliance, just to name a few. Such organizations can give you valuable networking opportunities throughout your career.

Scholarships and grants

If college costs are a concern for you, you’ll be happy to hear that there are many scholarships and grants available for African-American students in general and HBCU students in particular—and best of all, you can start finding them right now with the CollegeXpress scholarship search!

— Sources: Information compiled from The Associated Press, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, Inside Higher Education

Contact Johann Calhoun at newseditor@phillytrib.com or call at (215) 893-5739

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