Is a Historically Black College or University Right for You?

By Tiffany Eve Lawrence

As a Black student, you may consider attending a historically Black college or university, or HBCU, in an effort to earn your degree in an inclusive environment where your identity is seen and celebrated and faculty are equipped to understand and support the unique challenges of the Black student experience. 

The need for Black students to have a safe place to gain a college education is why Richard Humphreys, a Black philanthropist, founded the first HBCU in 1837. Before then, very few Black students were allowed to enroll in higher-education institutions, and those who did faced discrimination and prejudice. 

During this time, the world of higher education was dominated by the myth that Black students weren’t smart enough to learn at a college level. Even today, educational opportunities are imbalanced. The scales tip in favor of white students, who often benefit from generational connections and privilege while Black students still endure the effects of implicit racism and systemic oppression. 

A recent study shows that 21% of Black college students frequently or occasionally experience discrimination at their schools. The same research suggests that 45% of Black students have considered dropping out of college, likely because they have to juggle many other responsibilities, such as family and work-related commitments, on top of their studies. Attending a historically Black college could be an opportunity to learn and grow in a more accepting environment that accounts for—and supports—your responsibilities, experiences, and identity. 

Here are some things to consider—including HBCU benefits and HBCU challenges—while exploring college options.

You May Have Access to Top Programs

Aside from thriving campus cultures, many HBCUs are known for their specific highly rated programs. Florida A&M, for example, has top-rated health professions programs, while North Carolina A&T State University has a coveted engineering program and Howard University is known for its STEM programs.

Finding a college with well-known success rates for the degree you want to pursue is an important consideration. Take some time to explore the program offerings at HBCUs of interest and the resources available to their students.

You’ll Be Immersed in the Black Diaspora

Blackness is not a monolith, which means every Black person is not the same. Attending an HBCU is an opportunity to be around a high concentration of diverse Black faculty, staff and students, giving you a broad spectrum of lived experiences and enriching your experience as a Black student. Some you’ll be able to relate to, and others you’ll be able to learn from and appreciate.

You’ll Have the Opportunity to Feel Seen and Supported

Being at a school where most people don’t look like you could mean you may deal with both explicit and implicit racial bias. As a Black student at an HBCU, you’ll likely find the culture tends to be more community-driven and inclusive. 

Attending college with people who can relate to your lived experience as a Black person in America can be extremely valuable and help you feel like you are part of a community. The support is different when it comes from a place of commonality and connection and people who understand. And having a sense of belonging and connectedness is known to have a positive impact on mental health.

You May Have More Opportunities to Get Involved and Be Engaged

Research suggests that Black graduates of HBCUs are more likely than Black graduates of non-HBCUs to be involved in applied internships and extracurricular activities while at school. The same research also finds that Black HBCU graduates are more likely to report that their college or university prepared them well for post-grad life and to be engaged at work compared to their counterparts at non-HBCUs.

Your Background Will Be Celebrated

Your college years are a time to learn about the world. Like a sponge, you soak in new ideals that help shape who you become. Feeling safe during this time of identity development and self-discovery is essential. At an HBCU, you may take comfort in the fact that classroom discussions about affirmative action, politics, and other topics related to race don’t lead to an atmosphere where your identity is used against you or you are expected to educate others on your lived experience.

Some Students May Need More Support to Graduate

Many HBCUs’ graduation rates fall below the national average, but it’s worth noting that the populations HBCUs serve often have lower graduation rates no matter where they attend. That’s because systemic racism and oppression often leave Black students with limited access to college-prep resources and force them to balance full-time work and family responsibilities on top of pursuing their education. 

Many HBCUs, such as Morehouse College, are taking additional steps to improve graduation rates and better support students.

Some HBCUs Are More Affordable

HBCUs are known for being affordable, and most are below the national average for tuition. If the cost of attendance or figuring out how to pay for college is a top concern for you, an HBCU may be a good option and help you to graduate with less or no debt.

Your Black Identity Can Be Shaped by Acceptance and Support

This pivotal time can shape your Black identity. Having a space where you don’t feel pressured to assimilate to what non-Black society labels “acceptable” gives you the liberty to learn about your developing identity as a young Black adult without racial discrimination or prejudice.

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