What is an HBCU: The Ultimate Guide to HBCU’s

Written by Beth Hering
Published on January 8, 2023 · Updated on May 28, 2023

What is an HBCU: The Ultimate Guide to HBCU’s

Written by Beth Hering
Published on January 8, 2023 · Updated on May 28, 2023

Black students today are used to a variety of options when it comes to choosing where to attend college. This scenario, however, was not always true. Denied admission to existing U.S. colleges for much of our nation’s history, alternate institutions of higher learning arose to serve Black educational needs.

Many of these places remain in operation today and are known collectively as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Read on to learn more about them and if attending one might be the right decision for you.

What is an HBCU?

Numerous institutions of learning in the United States are designated as HBCUs. Officially, 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 of Education to be a reliable authority as to the quality of training offered or is, according to such an agency or association, making reasonable progress toward accreditation.”

An HBCU can be either private or public. The majority of HBCUs are four-year institutions, though several community colleges and technical schools also hold the distinction. Some HBCUs also offer graduate studies.

What does HBCU stand for?

HBCU stands for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

What is the history of HBCUs?

HBCUs originated to serve the educational needs of African Americans during periods of U.S. history when minority students had difficulty gaining admission to traditionally white institutions. The oldest HBCU still in operation is Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, which dates back to 1837. Many HBCUs began following the U.S. Civil War.

Each HBCU has its own rich history as well as its own unique place in 21st-century higher education. Take a look at Tuskegee University. Booker T. Washington founded this Alabama institution on July 4, 1881. George Washington Carver later served on the faculty. The Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American military aviators, trained there for World War II. In 1966, the institution was the first black college designated as a Registered National Historical Landmark. Today, educational offerings at the university include a doctoral program in veterinary medicine that has produced over 75% of the African American veterinarians in the world.

The list of prominent people who have graduated from HBCUs reads like a Who’s Who. Howard University in Washington, D.C., alone includes among its alums Vice President Kamala Harris, Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, actor Chadwick Boseman, author Toni Morrison, and opera singer Jessye Norman.

What attracts modern students to HBCUs?

Students weigh a variety of factors when trying to determine the school at which they wish to enroll, HBCU or otherwise. These often include:

  • Affordability
  • Financial aid availability
  • Specific educational programs or majors
  • Location
  • Quality of education
  • Sports and other extracurricular offerings

In addition to these things, reasons an HBCU might have an edge in the mind of a prospective student could include:

  • A high concentration of Black students among the student body
  • Greater employment of Black faculty and staff
  • Increased opportunity for mentorship from Black professors and professionals
  • Extra support services for first-generation and low-income students
  • Campus-wide celebration of Black culture and traditions
  • A deep network of African American alums
  • Desire to be a part of the legacy of Black education in the United States

How many HBCUs are there?

According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are 105 HBCUs. They are heavily concentrated in the South, with Alabama being the state with the most HBCUs. North CarolinaTexas, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Virginia, Tennessee, and Mississippi also contain a significant number of HBCUs. Other states with at least one HBCU include Arkansas, Florida, Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. Washington, D.C., is home to three HBCUs, and two are located in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Four of the most well-known HBCUs are located near one another in Atlanta, Ga. Morehouse College (liberal arts for men), Spelman College (liberal arts for women), Clark Atlanta University, and Morehouse School of Medicine make up the Atlanta University Center Consortium — the world’s oldest and largest association of historically black colleges and universities.

Are HBCUs Exclusively For Black Students?

While initially created to educate African Americans, HBCUs today serve a more diverse student body. Individuals from any race and ethnicity are welcome to apply to an HBCU. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, non-Black students made up nearly a quarter of enrollment at HBCUs in 2019.

Student body composition varies greatly by institution, though. About 85 percent of the students at Bluefield State College in West Virginia, for example, are white. More than half of the students at St. Philip’s College in Texas — one of the nation’s largest HBCUs — are Hispanic. Many HBCUs, such as Spelman College, remain almost entirely Black.

How Much Does an HBCU Cost?

Just like at any institution of higher learning, costs for HBCUs vary. Factors such as whether the place is private or public and whether you’re an in-state or out-of-state student come into play.

At the low end of the tuition spectrum are community colleges. For instance, tuition at Coahoma Community College in Clarksdale, Mississippi, runs $1,525 per semester for state residents. By contrast, tuition at Hampton University — a private four-year institution in Virginia — totals more than $26,000 per year.

Obviously, a great number of other schools exist between the most and least expensive HBCUs. Public institutions can be especially economical for state residents. At Fayetteville State University, for example, North Carolina residents pay around $5,700 per year for tuition and fees. For undergrads from outside the state, that figure jumps to $16,882.

Scholarships for HBCU Students

Many organizations value HBCUs and want to see students who attend them succeed, including this $25 million initiative. The following are a few scholarship opportunities that help ease the financial burden of students enrolled at HBCUs. To discover more for which you might be eligible, check out our scholarship search tool. Use the filters to pinpoint opportunities most suited to your background, qualifications, and educational goals.

Creme of Nature Scholarship

HBCU undergraduates with at least a 2.5 GPA can apply for this scholarship offered by Creme of Nature, a company that has been making products for Black hair for more than 40 years. The submission period begins in January, but interested students may want to get a heads-up on what they’ll need to submit by looking over the preview forms on the scholarship’s website.

HBCUConnect.com Minority Scholarship Program

This network for HBCU students and alumni offers several $1,000 scholarships to minority applicants who attend or plan to attend an HBCU. In addition to filling out an application, candidates submit a YouTube video that discusses why they chose to go to an HBCU and how doing so will help them meet their personal and professional goals.

Frederick Douglass Bicentennial Scholarship

Established in 2018 to commemorate the 200th birthday of the notable abolitionist, this program awards $10,000 scholarships to two rising seniors enrolled in a four-year HBCU. Criteria include leadership, academic achievement, commitment to community service, and unmet financial need.


  • Can I get a 2- or 4-year degree at an HBCU?
    • Yes. The list of schools designated as HBCUs contains both community/vocational institutions that award associate (2-year) degrees and colleges that offer undergraduate (4-year) programs. Some HBCUs also offer graduate degrees.
  • Can non-Black students attend an HBCU?
  • Do HBCU’s have student-athletes?
    • Yes. Intercollegiate sports are an important part of campus life at many HBCUs. Through the years, numerous athletes from HBCUs have competed in the Olympics and established professional careers.
  • What is the largest HBCU?
    • With an enrollment of 12,556, North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro holds the distinction of being the largest four-year HBCU.