Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have played—and continue to play—an indispensable role in American higher education. Most HBCUs were founded in the years after the Civil War to provide Black Americans with places where they could pursue a college education in a nation that still endorsed racial segregation in its institutions. While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed such segregation, HBCUs still serve to provide Black college students—many of whom are first-generation college attendees from low-income, low-wealth families—a place to pursue higher education in a welcoming environment that recognizes and honors the history, experience, and accomplishments of Black Americans.
Yet despite the vital role of HBCUs, historically, they have been woefully underfunded since their inception. Thus, it is imperative to continually debunk the myths and misunderstandings about HBCUs to help policymakers, philanthropists, and the public understand why HBCUs are over-performing and yet at the same time underfunded and underappreciated.
HBCUs are more relevant than ever. If a racial reckoning nationwide results in HBCUs receiving the investment they need and deserve, college equity and affordability will be advanced for the first-generation, minority, and low-income students they serve.
MYTH 1: HBCUs are no longer needed.
FACT: HBCUs continue to serve a higher proportion of low-income Black students than other colleges and universities.
Advancing racial equity has once again moved to the front page for policymakers, and yet some continue to question the need for HBCUs. Most HBCUs were founded in the mid-to-late 1800s with the primary mission of educating Black students in a system that otherwise was not built to serve them. Over 150 years later, Black students still face strong social, educational, and financial headwinds that blow them off the path to and through college. In 2019, 51 percent of Black high school graduates enrolled in college the following fall compared with 67 percent of white high school graduates. And, while colleges that accept federal funds cannot discriminate, according to the Education Trust, the nation’s most prestigious public colleges enroll a smaller percentage of Black students today than they did twenty years ago, enrolling 200,000 fewer black students than suggested by the racial makeup of their states.
HBCUs provide nearly twice as much college access to low-income students than other colleges and universities.
In contrast, HBCUs break down the barriers to success for Black students, annually enrolling over 200,000 Black students who are rich in promise but poor in resources. Significantly, HBCUs provide nearly twice as much college access to low-income students than other colleges and universities. At HBCUs, about 70 percent of students receive the Pell Grant—a federal grant for college expenses for low-income students that does not have to be repaid—compared to 32 percent at non-HBCUs. And with racial tensions on the rise across the country, interest in HBCUs has surged in recent years, with applications and enrollments up at many HBCUs because of their welcoming campus climate embracing all students’ cultural backgrounds.
MYTH 2: HBCUs discriminate against white students.
FACT: HBCUs are open to all students.
Many people are surprised to learn that HBCUs are open to all students. Although HBCUs were established to provide an educational opportunities for Black students during a period when states flat-out denied higher education to Blacks, HBCUs are not exclusively for Black students. Historically, HBCUs have been open to all students, paving a broad avenue of access for students of all creeds, colors, and conditions.
Overall, in 2020, about 76 percent of students enrolled at HBCUs were Black and 24 percent were not Black; 11 percent are white, 8 percent are Latinx, and 2 percent are American Indian, Asian, Native Hawaiian, or multi-race. Howard University in urban Washington, D.C.—sometimes called the Harvard of HBCUs—has a diverse student body, with 67 percent Black students and a third of its students from other racial backgrounds. And West Virginia State University—a small, rural public HBCU—has a student body that is 61 percent white. In Austin, Texas, the HBCU Huston-Tillotson University enrolls a student body where one in four students are from Latinx families.
MYTH 3: HBCUs provide an inferior education.
FACT: HBCUs provide a better educational experience for their students than comparable non-HBCUs.
HBCUs actually outperform their peer institutions in providing an excellent, affordable education—particularly for students who typically have been underserved. Research shows that HBCUs provide a better educational experience for their students than comparable non-HBCUs. HBCUs have, on average, a higher graduation rate than comparable non-HBCUs (38 percent versus 32 percent) with similar proportions of Black students enrolled. HBCUs also do a much better job (double the national average) than other colleges and universities in lifting low-income students from the bottom 40 percent in household income to the top 60 percent. A recent Gallup survey found that despite challenges, HBCUs are successfully providing black graduates with a better college experience, with greater financial and social well-being, and higher levels of satisfaction than they would get at non-HBCUs.
HBCUs have, on average, a higher graduation rate than comparable non-HBCUs (38 percent versus 32 percent) with similar proportions of Black students enrolled.
One of the reasons for this better performance is that HBCUs are continually exploring new academic programs, investing in student support services, and updating technologies to remain competitive and provide the best education possible to their students—even with limited resources.
College graduates, in general, enjoy higher incomes, greater intergenerational wealth, better health care, and enhanced quality of life, and few institutions can match the job that HBCUs do in achieving these results for the first-generation college students they serve.
MYTH 4: HBCUs receive enough funding.
FACT: Since their inception, HBCUs have been shortchanged public funding.
HBCUs have always struggled to receive adequate, equitable funding—including the funding due to them by law—and that struggle continues today. For example, a recent analysis by Forbes magazine found that eighteen public land-grant HBCUs were underfunded by nearly $13 billion between 1987 and 2020, compared to the resources that their states provided predominantly white land-grant universities.
While it is impossible to quantify the totality of funding inequities experienced by HBCUs, The Century Foundation report “Achieving Financial Equity and Justice for HBCUs” highlights key historical events that have led to dire funding disparities impacting HBCUs. For example, from the enactment of the Agriculture College Act of 1890 (known as the Second Morrill Act) and continuing today, some Southern states refuse to appropriate the matching state funds owed to the public land-grant HBCUs under the Second Morrill Act.
For generations, public HBCUs have had to fight for equal funding, leading to years-long lawsuits in Maryland, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina. In 2002, the Ayers case resulted in a $503 million settlement to three public Mississippi HBCUs over seventeen years. Last year, Maryland reached a $577 million settlement to end a fifteen-year-old lawsuit over inequities in state funding for Morgan State University and three other HBCUs. A Tennessee legislative committee recently acknowledged the state failed to meet its obligations to fund Tennessee State University by $150 million to $544 million.
For generations, public HBCUs have had to fight for equal funding, leading to years-long lawsuits in Maryland, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina.
And, these financial struggles extend to both public and private HBCUs. The American Council of Education in 2015 found that public and private four-year HBCUs experienced steeper declines in federal funding per full-time equivalent (FTE) student between 2003 and 2015, with private HBCUs seeing a 42 percent reduction.
The damage wrought by this history of state and federal underfunding is clearly visible. While HBCUs have been starved for funding, the need for investments in technology, facilities, and infrastructure has continued to grow. The U.S. Government Accountability Office documented a deferred maintenance backlog of $30 million and $12 million, respectively, at the typical public and private HBCU.
Under Title III of the Higher Education Act, HBCUs receive a modest infusion of federal grant support—about $500 million annually—because of their unique contributions to American higher education. Under the Trump and Biden administrations, HBCUs gained more prominence in federal policy, recently receiving an uptick in federal funding—approximately $2.7 billion in COVID-related aid—to help them recover from the economic shock of the pandemic. This targeted federal aid, however, does not create an even playing field for HBCUs. They must still overcome decades of inadequate grant aid for high-need students, limited ability to raise tuition without negatively impacting poor students, boom and bust cycles of philanthropic support, and stark disparities in public financing.
MYTH 5: HBCUs are fiscally mismanaged.
FACT: HBCUs are a “best buy,” costing 28 percent less, on average, than other colleges and universities.
America is experiencing a college affordability problem, with policymakers asking colleges and universities to do more to control costs and lower tuition. But, HBCUs already have done their part. Because of their historic mission to expand educational opportunities for underserved students, HBCUs are a “best buy,” generally costing significantly less than other colleges and universities. In 2013, the average cost of attending an HBCU was $21,707 compared with $30,108 for other colleges and universities—a difference of $8,401, or 28 percent less.
To cite just a few examples of the value HBCUs provide, the annual cost of attending Tennessee State University, a public HBCU in Nashville, is about $12,000 compared to nearly $19,000 at the University of Tennessee–Knoxville, the state’s flagship public university. In Louisiana, the annual cost at Xavier University, a private HBCU, is approximately $20,000, compared to nearly $23,000 at Emory University, another private institution in New Orleans. Claflin University, a small, well-regarded private HBCU in Orangeburg, South Carolina, costs about $21,000 per year, compared to nearly $28,000 at Wofford College, a small private college in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
As shown above, HBCUs have always been denied much of the public funding owed to them by their states. These funding shortfalls over the decades have forced HBCUs to defer maintenance, pay lower salaries than they should, and economize on their academic programming. Furthermore, it limits these institutions’ ability to provide much-needed direct aid to its students.
What is truly remarkable, however, is what HBCUs have managed to do with so little, producing the nation’s top Black political leaders, scientists, doctors, teachers, and entrepreneurs. One could argue that it takes superior management skills to sustain institutions at a reasonable cost for their students for so long against the odds, while continually producing the next generation of leaders for their communities and the country.
MYTH 6: HBCU students receive enough student aid due to Pell Grants.
FACT: HBCU students take on loan debt in greater numbers and in greater amounts than other students to finish college.
Despite relatively low tuition at HBCUs, many HBCU students struggle to afford college. The proportion of HBCU students with no family resources for college is almost twice as high as at other colleges and universities. Nearly 60 percent of HBCU students have families with $0 Expected Family Contribution (EFC), the federal government’s measure of family resources, meaning that their family income is so low that they have income or assets to contribute to college costs.
When the Pell Grant program started nearly fifty years ago, the maximum Pell Grant covered most of the cost of attending a four-year public college. Today, its purchasing power is at an all-time low.
Because of the resource gap for HBCU families, nearly 60 percent of HBCU students at public institutions and nearly 65 percent of HBCU students at private institutions receive Pell Grants. When the Pell Grant program started nearly fifty years ago, the maximum Pell Grant covered most of the cost of attending a four-year public college. Today, its purchasing power is at an all-time low. Now, Pell pays for less than a third of these costs, leaving HBCU students and families to scramble to come up with the difference. And because HBCUs lack resources to provide more student aid, HBCU students must take on loan debt in greater numbers and in greater amounts than other students to finish college. According to the analysis conducted by The Century Foundation, Black HBCU graduates who received a bachelor’s degree in 2008 had accrued nearly $56,000, on average, in loan debt by 2018. Including the additional $16,510 in Parent PLUS loan debt their parents took on for their children’s education, the families of Black HBCU graduates incurred more than $72,000, on average, in intergenerational debt.
Leaving college with large amounts of student loan debt contributes to the racial wealth gap, often by delaying or deferring a Black graduate’s ability to earn an advanced degree, start a family, buy a house, and contribute to a retirement plan—all impacting lifetime earnings and wealth.
MYTH 7: HBCU alumni giving is low.
FACT: Alumni giving at some HBCUs is relatively high, despite the racial wealth gap—but it’s not nearly enough to fill funding gaps.
HBCU alumni are loyal, and many give to their alma maters at generous rates, despite the lower wealth of Black families. (The typical wealth of a white family, $188,200, is eight times that of a Black family, $24,100.) Overall, approximately 11 percent of HBCU alumni give back financially to their institution, according to a U.S. News and World Report survey—likely giving back a greater portion of their household wealth when compared to non-HBCU alumni.
Some HBCUs offer a model to other HBCUs because they have achieved much higher levels of giving—reflecting a close bond between the institution and its graduates, coupled with strong institutional fundraising. Claflin University, a small private HBCU in rural South Carolina, has an enviable alumni giving rate of nearly 48 percent—matching the rate of alumni giving at some elite colleges. Spelman College in Georgia and Bennett College in North Carolina—both women’s colleges and HBCUs—are standouts, with alumni giving rates exceeding 35 percent. So too, little-known Lane College, a small private HBCU in Tennessee, boasts a 33 percent alumni giving rate. The examples set by Claflin, Spelman, Bennett, and Lane demonstrate that, with intention and effective strategies, generous alumni donations can become the norm, not the exception.
Claflin University, a small private HBCU in rural South Carolina, has an enviable alumni giving rate of nearly 48 percent—matching the rate of alumni giving at some elite colleges.
Alumni giving is necessary in helping to fill the financial gaps facing HBCUs, but not sufficient. For example, Claflin University has a strong base of alumni supporters, yet its endowment falls only in the middle for private HBCUs.
MYTH 8: Private HBCUs only enroll well-off black students.
FACT: Nearly half of the students enrolled at the top private HBCUs, Spelman College and Howard University, come from low-income families.
Spelman College, considered by some to be the nation’s top HBCU, has been recognized by the National Science Foundation as the leading producer of Black women who earn doctorates in the sciences—even while 45 percent of its students come from low-income families. Similarly, nearly half of students enrolled at Vice President Kamala Harris’s alma mater, Howard University, have low-income status. In contrast, nearby private universities such as Emory University in Atlanta and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. have low-income enrollments of only 21 percent and 14 percent, respectively. Xavier University of Louisiana, a private HBCU that produces more Black students who graduate from medical school each year than any other university in the United States, enrolls 58 percent Pell Grant recipients, a percentage that is eight times more than nearby Tulane University. At Tuskegee University, another well-regarded private HBCU in Alabama, more than 85 percent of students come from low-income backgrounds, compared with only 11 percent at Auburn University, a flagship institution in the state.
Nearly half of students enrolled at Vice President Kamala Harris’s alma mater, Howard University, have low-income status.
Private HBCUs have long been leaders in lifting up Black students from all walks of life, especially the underserved. In contrast, low-income Black students continue to be systematically excluded from many of the most elite colleges and universities in the country.
MYTH 9: Many HBCUs have significant endowments due to private philanthropy.
FACT: HBCU endowments are typically much lower than those of their non-HBCU institutions.
The endowment picture across all HBCUs is alarming. The average endowment at a public HBCU is only $7,265 per full-time equivalent (FTE) student, 71 percent less than at other public colleges and universities, while the average endowment at a private HBCU is only $24,989 per FTE, 86 percent less than at private non-HBCUs. According to the U.S. Department of Education, nine HBCUs have no endowment at all.
Recent public attention to issues of racial equity have brought a welcome influx of new donations to many HBCUs. Still, these donations have gone to better-known institutions, drawing attention away from the fact that many smaller HBCUs have not benefited at all from private largess over the past few years.
The wealth gap between Back families and white families is reflected in the endowment gap between HBCUs and similar but predominantly white institutions, and filling this endowment gap is a challenge, despite the recent well-publicized donations to HBCUs. Endowments at even the best-known HBCUs with the largest endowments—Howard University and Spelman College—lag behind their non-HBCU counterparts. For example, the highest endowed HBCU, Howard University, is often ranked in the top 100 universities in the country, but its endowment of approximately $700 million is ranked number 160, a tiny fraction of Harvard’s more than $50 billion endowment in 2020. Spelman College has grown its endowment to about $400 million; however, its 2020 endowment is millions of dollars below those at sister institutions Wellesley College and Smith College in Massachusetts.
This endowment shortfall has not gone unnoticed, and some of the nation’s best-known philanthropists are making big contributions to HBCUs. In 2020, philanthropist MacKenzie Scott donated $560 million to twenty-three HBCUs, transformational gifts allowing HBCU leaders unheard-of flexibility to determine their own priorities and manage these resources. For example, Clark Atlanta University is using its $15 million unrestricted grant from Scott to innovate, enhance campus facilities, provide student scholarships, and boost its endowment. Similarly, the co-founder of Netflix, Reed Hastings, donated $40 million each to Spelman College, Morehouse College, and the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). IBM invested $100 million in technology, assets, and other resources for several HBCUs through its IBM Skills Academy Academic Initiative. Michael Bloomberg, former NYC Mayor and co-founder of Bloomberg LP, is donating $100 million to the four historically Black medical schools. These donations signal full faith in the leadership of HBCUs to carefully manage important resources and produce results.
But these headline-earning donations are only a response to a dire situation, not the solution to it.
MYTH 10: HBCUs are not different from other Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs).
FACT: Not all MSIs are created equal; HBCUs have a historic designation.
When discussing colleges and universities that serve minority students predominantly, it is easy to refer to them as minority-serving institutions (MSIs). However, not all MSIs are created equal. MSIs consist of:
- Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs);
- Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs);
- Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs);
- Asian American, Native American, and Pacific Islander Serving Institutions (AANAPISIs); and
- Predominantly Black Institutions (PBIs).
HBCUs have a historic federal designation as they were established out of segregation, at a time when Black students were prohibited from accessing education at white-only institutions. HBCUs have held a special place for over a century and a half of American history as enduring places of opportunity, engagement, and empowerment for Black students. As such, they have a unique and historic designation in the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, which statutorily defines HBCUs as institutions established before 1964 whose principal mission was—and is—the education of Black students. The HEA acknowledges that HBCUs were founded specifically for Black students during an era of segregation and have suffered the negative effects of discriminatory state and federal policies, hence their federal designation. Tribal College and Universities also have a similar historic designation.
Minority-serving institutions or MSIs is a term used to group all higher education institutions that serve minoritized students. However, there are distinctions between them. HSIs, PBIs, and AANAPISIs receive their designation based on the percent of their student population representing that minoritized group, and as enrollment changes, so can their designation. This qualifies an institution to compete for Title III and Title IV funding under the Higher Education Act (HEA). The HSI designation requires 25 percent of enrolled students to be Latinx, the PBI designation requires 40 percent of enrolled students to be Black, and the AANAPSI designation requires 10 percent of enrolled students to be Asian or Pacific Islander.
Congress amended the HEA to include other types of colleges and universities serving concentrations of minoritized students as MSIs. But, unlike HBCUs, whose federal designation results from their historic role in American higher education and does not rely on a specific Black enrollment, other MSIs are designated primarily because they have experienced significant growth in minority student enrollment and, thus, their federal funding eligibility is based on the proportion of minority students enrolled. The vast majority of these MSIs are located in the west and southwest, where the Hispanic population is growing. The over 500 HSIs can include large, well-resourced research universities, such as the University of California at Irvine and Texas A&M University, whose federal eligibility requires enrollment of at least 25 percent of students of Hispanic origin. Similarly, AANAPISIs, such as Georgia State University and the University of Hawaii at Hilo, must enroll at least 10 percent of Asian, Native American, or Pacific Islander students. Some PBIs were predominantly white institutions and are now designated as PBIs due to changes in the composition of their student bodies; PBIs, such as the University of West Alabama, Chicago State University, and Johnson and Wales University, must enroll at least 40 percent of Black students to receive HEA funding.