The American higher education system includes institutions defined by the US Department of Education (DOE) as historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). According to the Higher Education Act (1965), their ranks include “any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans.” As of 2019, the DOE officially recognizes 101 HBCUs in twenty-one American jurisdictions.
Prior to the American Civil War (1861–1865), African Americans had very few opportunities to pursue a formal education. Most slave states enacted laws that made it illegal to provide nonreligious education to African American students. In some southern jurisdictions, such policies extended to all African Americans, regardless of whether they were enslaved or free, and the penalties for breaking these laws were harsh. Slave states generally viewed literacy as a threat to the institution of slavery, and as a result, the United States became the only country in modern history known to explicitly prohibit the education of enslaved people.
The situation was somewhat different in northern free states, where religious and charitable organizations worked to offer educational opportunities to African Americans. Upon his death, the Quaker philanthropist Richard Humphreys (1750–1832) bequeathed 10 percent of his estate to finance the founding of the Institute for Colored Youth, a trade school for African Americans that opened in 1837. Now known as Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, the institution is recognized by the DOE as the first HBCU in American history.
With the Civil War challenging and ultimately abolishing the institution of slavery, African Americans gradually became able to pursue a wider range of educational opportunities. Between 1861 and 1900, more than ninety colleges and universities for African American students were established throughout the United States. In 1890, Congress passed the second Morrill Act, which compelled states to reserve lands for African American schools in jurisdictions where black students were not already permitted to attend higher education institutions.
The Evolution and Importance of HBCUs
Institutions including Lincoln University of Pennsylvania and Wilberforce University achieved noteworthy firsts in the history of HBCUs. Established in 1854, Lincoln University of Pennsylvania was the first HBCU to bestow degrees upon its graduates. Wilberforce University, launched in Wilberforce, Ohio, in 1856, was the first HBCU solely owned and operated by African Americans.
Despite some exceptions, HBCUs mainly focused on literacy, teacher training, and religious education during their early history. This began to change in the twentieth century when they increasingly adopted more traditional forms of scholarship to meet the needs and demands of their growing student bodies. Concurrently, academic councils and scholarly journals dedicated to African American intellectualism began to appear.
Nevertheless, major gaps in college attendance and academic achievement persisted among African American and white communities in the United States. With the civil rights movement gaining momentum, President Lyndon B. Johnson (served 1963–1969) signed the Higher Education Act into law in 1965. The act assigned greater resources to higher education institutions, viewing them as key assets in the fight against poverty and lack of opportunity. The act included a codified definition of HBCUs, and its passage followed several high-profile US Supreme Court cases that challenged the applicability of the “separate but equal” legal doctrine to higher education institutions. “Separate but equal” laws were responsible for the segregation policies that were in place in many former slave states at the time.
Efforts to desegregate higher education continued into the 1970s and beyond, but HBCUs were maintained as an important legacy of African American history, culture, and intellectual achievement. The DOE notes that HBCUs have historically played a critical role in extending educational opportunities to African American students. In 1991, the DOE noted that more than 80 percent of African Americans who had earned medical and dental degrees to that point in US history had graduated from an HBCU. At the time, approximately 75 percent of all African Americans with doctorate degrees, 75 percent of all African American military officers, and 80 percent of all African American federal judges had been educated at an HBCU.
HBCUs in the United States Today
Today, the DOE requires all historically black institutions to hold accreditation from a nationally recognized agency to officially qualify as an HBCU. As of 2019, a total of 101 higher education institutions met DOE criteria. DOE-recognized HBCUs operate in nineteen states, the District of Columbia, and the US Virgin Islands. Georgia leads all American jurisdictions with ten HBCUs within its borders.
While HBCUs historically limited admissions offers to African American applicants, they now accept students of all racial backgrounds. DOE data from 2017 indicates that nonblack students comprise about 24 percent of total enrollment at HBCUs. Black enrollment rates at HBCUs rose by 19 percent between 1976 and 2017, but the number of African Americans enrolled at other higher education institutions increased at a greater rate during that period. As a result, the proportion of African American college students enrolled at HBCUs slid from 18 percent in 1976 to 9 percent in 2010, and it remains in the 9 percent range as of 2017. HBCUs awarded approximately 49,500 degrees to graduating students at the conclusion of the 2016–2017 academic year.