Posted | by Steven Graham

HBCUs Then and Now: Origin & Recent Challenges

Historically black colleges and universities, HBCUs for short, have broken many barriers, enabling black people to get a proper education. The history of HBCUs stretches way back to the 1800s, when racism and inequality were at their worst.

While HBCUs hold a special place in our hearts, they have been met with a set of unique challenges threatening their very existence. In this article, we'll tell you everything you need to know about the background of HBCUs, as well as more recent issues affecting them.


HBCUs Then: How Did They Come About?

The oldest HBCUs originated hundreds of years ago. While some may know a little about how they came about, chances are you could use a bit of background information. In the following sections, we'll fill you in on the history of HBCUs.


The First HBCU

In the 1800s, very few white colleges were willing to accept black students because of their race. This injustice left many black Americans with no hope of attending college to further their education. But instead of accepting the discrimination, black churches, charitable organizations, and philanthropists went to work.

Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, the first HBCU, was founded on February 25, 1837, by Richard Humphreys. The college was first named the African Institute – then it was renamed the Institute for Colored Youth. The name changed several times again before becoming Cheyney University of Pennsylvania. The college was established with one focus, to give black Americans the opportunity to get an education just like their white counterparts.

At the time that the college was established, agricultural and trade jobs were typical. So, the college trained in both trades and agriculture. The college now provides a wide variety of degree programs, like biology, pre-med, and sociology.


More HBCUs Were Founded Across the U.S.

Soon after Cheyney University of Pennsylvania was founded, more and more HBCUs were established. The majority of HBCUs were established by black churches that partnered with organizations like the American Missionary Association and the Freedmen's Bureau. Some of the earliest HBCUs include:

  • Lincoln University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1854)
  • Harris-Stowe State University (founded in 1857)
  • Wilberforce University (founded in 1856)
  • LeMoyne-Owen College (founded in 1862)

Now, there are 107 total HBCUs, of which three are currently closed. 

HBCU Alumni Have Made Major Contributions to Society

HBCUs not only gave black Americans a place to get an education, but they helped to shape some of the most influential black minds and the world as a whole. Upon graduation, alumni went on and made some much-needed changes to the world. 


Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. - Morehouse College

Most people are aware of Dr. King and his immeasurable contributions to society, but we'd be remiss if we didn't mention his accomplishments. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. attended Morehouse college from 1944 to 1948, earning a degree in sociology. 

In the years after graduation, King led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, headed up the Birmingham campaign, helped organize the March on Washington, and more. His actions have had a substantial impact on the lives of blacks in the 50s and 60s, and they still impact us today. He fought bravely until his death to bring fundamental rights to African Americans.


Thurgood Marshall - Lincoln University and Howard University

Thurgood Marshall went to both Lincoln University and Howard University, earning a bachelor's degree and a law degree. After earning his credentials, he became a well-known attorney who fought to end legal segregation in America. 


Jesse Jackson - North Carolina A&T State University

Yet another notable HBCU alumnus is Jesse Jackson, who graduated from North Carolina A&T State University. He is now a well-known civil rights activist who worked alongside Dr. King to bring freedom to black people in America. He also led numerous protests and delivered various lectures to students. Due to his hard work, Jackson received numerous accolades, including the Medal of Freedom. He has also written many novels depicting racism and social issues from his point of view. 


Toni Morrison - Howard University

An alumna of Howard University, Toni Morrison has changed the world through her novels and other writings. Her novels opened readers' eyes to the injustices of black existence, inspiring positive change and self-love. She's won several awards for her impactful works, including the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Her works continue to inspire today's generation of black men, women, and children. 


Spike Lee - Morehouse College

Spike Lee is yet another notable alumnus from an HBCU. He attended Morehouse college and went on to become one of the most famous filmmakers of our time. He's produced a wide array of historically significant films centered around racism, crime, and other pertinent issues experienced by black Americans. 

Some of his most notable films include: 

  • She's Gotta Have It
  • BlacKkKlansman
  • Do the Right Thing

The above individuals are among the most noteworthy HBCU alumni. Countless others attended HBCUs and went on to create positive change in the world.


HBCUs' Effect on the Economy

From an economic standpoint, HBCUs have had a positive effect on the American economy.

There are now more than 100 HBCUs currently in operation, and together they make a monumental impact on the economy. According to the UNCF, HBCUs rake in a sizable $14.8 billion every year. Also, these institutions have created hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Last but not least, HBCUs produce well-educated graduates who secure a high level of wealth post-graduation. It's been determined that HBCU graduates earn nearly a million dollars more than their uneducated counterparts over their lifetime.


HBCUs Now: The Challenges HBCUs Face Today

As black institutions, HBCUs deal with unique challenges. A couple of the most common issues include declining attendance and financial hardship. If you've ever heard or read about how HBCUs are struggling, this section will clear up everything for you. Let's dive into the challenges that HBCUs face today.


Declining Attendance 

One of the most well-known challenges facing HBCUs is declining enrollment. According to NBC News, in the 2018-2019 school year, American HBCUs had their second-lowest student enrollment numbers in nearly two decades! 

Bethune-Cookman University is one of the most notable HBCUs dealing with low enrollment. The institution saw a 20% drop in attendance in 2020. Similarly, Cheyney University, the first HBCU ever, saw a whopping 38% decrease in enrollment in 2018. The downward attendance trend affects many more black colleges and universities. 

Unfortunately, a sustained drop in enrollment can cause a school to close down indefinitely due to decreased enrollment revenue. For this reason, declining attendance is an issue that is being met with swift action, like increased advertising, ramping up enrollment efforts, reaching out to alumni for donations, and more.  


Difficulty Enrolling Top Students

HBCUs originated at a disadvantage, just like many of their students. Many black colleges and universities operate without enough resources, which sometimes translates to less-than-great amenities, supplies, and facilities.

Besides, HBCUs came to be when African Americans had no other options to further their education, but times are different now. Students who excel in high school and score highly on standardized exams get to choose from various prestigious universities with pristine reputations. And although some of the top colleges and universities in the U.S. are HBCUs, some are overlooked and perceived as less desirable than white colleges and universities and fail to attract top students.


Student Graduation Success Rate

The graduation success rate is a metric that many use for assessing the quality of a college or university. And while each HBCU comes with its own unique benefits and challenges, a large majority of HBCUs struggle with student graduation success rates. 

On average, private colleges and universities have a 4-year graduation rate of around 50%. On the other hand, the graduation rate for public colleges and universities is about 33%. The majority of HBCUs struggle to keep up with both public and private institutions when it comes to graduation success rates. It's not unusual to come across an HBCU with a 4-year graduation success rate of less than 30%. 

These low rates fuel the negative narrative that HBCUs do not provide a high-quality education or are not as good as white institutions. 

There are many reasons why colleges and universities have low graduation rates, including financial hardship among students and a demanding curriculum. 


Competition from Modern Educational Programs

With technological advances come many benefits for students who hope to attend college for less. But HBCUs and other traditional colleges that operate primarily on a physical campus are in danger of being left behind. 

Many students forego the traditional brick-and-mortar college experience and opt for online and on-demand college options that fit their lifestyles. Some HBCUs have been slower to jump on the technological bandwagon than others. Those that haven't embraced technology may have trouble recruiting students for their degree programs and certifications. 


Lack of Funding

Yet another issue that HBCUs are up against is financial instability stemming from a lack of funding. Some state that HBCUs are underfunded because of distinctive situations fueled by racism. Others believe that the problem lies in the absence of public grants. 

Without sufficient funding, HBCUs can't hope to provide a good education for students. It costs money to hire quality professors, keep the facilities in good shape, pay executives and leadership, provide meals, secure and maintain accreditation, and more. 

The longer an HBCU goes without enough money, the worse the overall situation gets. Often, construction projects are postponed, great teachers leave in search of higher compensation, and students suffer due to diminished educational resources. Once a school has been struggling with low revenue or reduced funding for an extended amount of time, it may be in danger of losing its accreditation. 

You may not be surprised to find out that historically black colleges and universities have lower endowments than other institutions. According to Marybeth Gasman, Director of the Rutgers Center for Minority Serving Institutions, HBCU endowments are around 70% smaller than other educational institutions. This means that HBCUs don't have as much of a financial cushion as other institutions. 


Some HBCUs are Doing Well

It's important to stress that HBCUs are individual - while a large number of HBCUs are struggling in one way or another, some are thriving. 

For instance, Spelman College is the number 1 HBCU, according to the U.S. News & World Report. The institution has a 6-year graduation rate of 76%, has garnered many accolades, and receives sizeable grants to support its already robust curriculum aimed at empowering women. 

The U.S. News and World Report ranked Howard University as the second-best HBCU. The university is known for its leadership in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). The school receives yearly funding to support its ambitious initiatives and curriculum and is doing well in a general sense. 

Here are a few other HBCUs that are doing well despite the challenges faced by the average black institution: 

  • Hampton University
  • Florida A&M University
  • Xavier University of Louisiana
  • North Carolina A&T University
  • Fisk University


Do Your Part to Support HBCUs

Against the odds, the majority of HBCUs have found ways to stay afloat. Alumni and university leadership realize that HBCUs' historical and cultural significance is worth fighting for. But these institutions cannot survive without your support. To keep historically black colleges and universities alive, we must do our part. 

You can support HBCUs in one of the following ways: 

  • Donate: Some donate to the United Negro College Fund, intending to help all HBCUs. But giving this way doesn't always work, as some HBCUs are not members of the UNCF. Instead, you can donate to specific HBCUs directly. We recommend that you do a little research and target your efforts to HBCUs in financial trouble. 
  • Join your alumni association: If you went to an HBCU, check in with your alma mater and join your alumni association. You'll then be able to put your efforts toward making positive change at your former college or university. 
  • Spread HBCU positivity: At every chance, you get, sing HBCUs' praises. Let your voice be heard. Share your positive HBCU experiences with the new generation to ensure that they know how great HBCUs really are. 

Now you know how HBCUs originated, the challenges they face, and how to help. We hope that this article answers your questions and motivates you to take action to save our beloved HBCUs.'s%20Bureau%2C%20formally%20known,aftermath%20of%20the%20Civil%20War.,list%20of%20America's%20largest%20corporations.