Why Historically Black Colleges and Universities Are Vital and Valuable to the U.S. Higher Education System

James V. Koch and Omari H. Swinton

Are Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) “vital and valuable” to contemporary America? Absolutely. HBCUs capably fill a niche in higher education (and in society) that the typical American college or university either ignores or downplays.

Many Americans, especially those who do not self-identify as Black, know little or nothing about HBCUs, perhaps because they live a thousand miles or more from the nearest one. They may have heard of an HBCU football or basketball team or seen one of the legendary HBCU marching bands perform on television but understand little more.

The differences between HBCUs and other institutions often are immense. For example, at the College of William and Mary, a top-rated public institution, in fall 2020, only 6 percent of the undergraduate student body was Black, and only 11 percent of the freshmen were Pell Grant recipients (an indication of significant financial need). By contrast, at Alabama A&M University, an HBCU, 90 percent of the undergraduate student body was Black, and 67 percent of the freshmen were Pell Grant recipients.[i]

We could provide additional examples almost ad infinitum, but the message is clear. American higher education, intentionally or not, is partitioned on the basis of race and income. But many individuals seem uninformed or even ignorant of the facts. Because of this, we posed six core questions about HBCUs at the beginning of Vital and Valuable. Understanding the answers is essential to understanding the role and contributions of HBCUs today.

First, do HBCUs provide higher education opportunities for Black students that otherwise are not available?

Historically, the answer clearly was yes because for more than a century, Black people in America were denied entrance to many colleges and universities or discouraged from attending. In a formal sense, this no longer holds true because legal segregation no longer exists. But the enrollment of Black people in higher education typically is sparse at institutions that are highly ranked or more expensive. Legally open is not equivalent to practically open. The FY 2020 data presented in the table below demonstrate this. Only 4.22 percent of the undergraduate students at public flagship four-year colleges in the United States were Black, while 83.71 percent of the students at HBCUs were Black. While 68.14 percent of students at HBCUs exhibited strong financial need by virtue of their being Pell Grant recipients, only 15.94 percent of the students at the elite institutions received Pell Grants.[ii]

The Differences Between HBCUs and Other Institutions: FY 2020


Institutional Type

Median Fiscal Year Full-Time Equivalent Student Enrollment

Median Percent of Undergraduate Black Students

Median Percent of Freshman Pell Grant Recipients


(N = 69)




All Non-HBCUs

(N = 653)




Public Flagships

(N = 73)




*USNWR Elite

(N = 72)




Source: See note 2.
*The U.S. News elite refers to an institution that either was ranked among the Top 50 “National” universities by U.S. News, or among the Top 50 liberal arts institutions nationally by U.S. News.

There is considerable overlap among the two categories and data were not available for some campuses. 

Are HBCUs more affordable than non-HBCUs?

HBCUs have the reputation of being affordable, and based only on their posted “sticker price” costs, this is true. But there is a difference between those sticker prices and the net prices that students actually end up paying after grants and scholarships have been deducted. Many non-HBCUs offer large proportions of students discounts from their sticker prices. At some private institutions, virtually every student receives some type of scholarship or grant.

However, public institutions also put their educational offerings on sale, and not only to those students who demonstrate financial need. But let’s focus on students with significant financial need—those who come from a household whose annual income is less than $30,000. In 2020–2021, HBCU South Carolina State University charged those lowest income students an average of $19,718 for tuition and fees plus room and board. However, the state’s flagship, the University of South Carolina–Columbia, charged similarly situated students an average of only $12,610. Indeed, the Columbia campus even underpriced South Carolina State for students coming from households that earned $110,000 or more. Here, the flagship institution charged such students an average of $24,716, while South Carolina State charged similarly situated students an average of $26,035.[iii]

The lesson to be drawn is that HBCUs aren’t always a low-cost higher education alternative, and non-HBCUs (often referred to inaccurately as PWIs, predominantly white institutions) frequently underprice HBCUs, particularly for students they want. This underlines the increasingly competitive enrollment environment in which most HBCUs operate, which will be exacerbated by the forthcoming “enrollment cliff” as the sizes of national high school graduating classes decline for more than a decade.

Do Black students underperform at non-HBCUs because they are uncomfortable there?

More than a century ago, W.E.B. Du Bois, a polymath who excelled in many intellectual arenas, described a world in which Black individuals must display “double consciousness”—they live one life inside the Black community and a distinctly different life when they go to work or interact in the majority community. Du Bois argued that this was unnatural and eventually wore down Black individuals.

It is not easy to evaluate such a hypothesis, and we have two conflicting genres of evidence that relate to it. First, many students who attend HBCUs praise the unpressured, more relaxed atmosphere that they perceive on these campuses with respect to them as Black students. In this regard, we quote Marissa Stubbs, a Black student at Florida A&M University, who commented, “My HBCU has served as my haven, a place where I can be unapologetically Black.”[iv] Undeniably, this is a sentiment that many other Black students at HBCUs share.

Against this, we note that substantially more than half of HBCUs lost enrollment over the past decade and that some non-HBCUs have added large numbers of Black students. At Georgia State University, a large non-HBCU located in Atlanta, 42 percent of the undergraduates were Black in 2020–2021. It seems eminently plausible that many of these students might have attended one of Georgia’s stable of well-regarded HBCUs.[v]

Thus, the evidence suggests that some Black students continue to be uncomfortable on “majority” campuses, but that certain of those institutions have found ways to overcome these challenges and consequently are attracting and retaining more Black students.

However, we also present evidence that when one controls for the household incomes of students and their Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores, Black students on average are more likely to graduate from an HBCU than from a non-HBCU. Further, they are more likely to move up the economic ladder after they graduate than if they had attended a non-HBCU. The problem is that graduation rates at HBCUs typically trail those at non-HBCUs by a wide margin.

Do HBCUs excel at providing students with upward economic mobility?

As we hinted in the previous section, the representative HBCU outperforms the representative non-HBCU in moving its graduates upward in the economic distribution after they leave campus. This is a major achievement of which many individuals are unaware.

There are qualifications, however. The ability of an institution to move its students upward economically critically depends upon two factors: where the students started in terms of the income distribution and whether they subsequently graduated. With respect to the former, if a student’s parents already were earning an income that placed them in the 85th percentile nationally (the average at Washington and Lee), then there is not a lot of room for upward movement after they leave campus. But prospects are much better at Mississippi Valley State University, an HBCU where students’ average household income placed them at the 30th percentile nationally.[vi]

The median graduation rate for first-time, full-time freshmen (allowing six years for them to earn a bachelor’s degree) was only 36.32 percent at the 69 HBCUs in our sample (2020 being the final fulfillment year), but 64.60 percent at the 600+ non-HBCUs in our sample. Those who graduate from college earn a substantial income premium over those who do not. Thus, it pays to graduate, and many students who enroll at HBCUs do not. In recent years, the highest graduation rates at HBCUs have been recorded at selective private institutions such as Hampton, Howard, Morehouse, and Spelman, but none of these tops 70 percent.

Do HBCUs hold the key to maintaining a Black talent pipeline into professional positions?

More than 80 percent of all Black Americans who have earned degrees in medicine and dentistry did so at two HBCUs: Howard University and Meharry Medical College. Ten of the top eleven campuses producing Black bachelor’s degree recipients who subsequently earn a Ph.D. are HBCUs. Three-quarters of Black doctoral degree recipients started their academic careers at HBCUs. Four-fifths of Black federal judges are HBCU alumni.[vii]

The preceding flow of valuable Black talent might be replicated at non-HBCUs in the future, but this has yet to be demonstrated. For now, it is clear that HBCUs have excelled at generating graduates who have entered prestigious professions and served humankind. The negative consequences associated with disrupting this pipeline would be large indeed.

Last, do HBCUs have positive social and economic impacts on their communities?

Yes. Indeed, some HBCUs are located in smaller communities where they constitute the major industry in the town. But HBCUs have filled an important economic role wherever they are located. Historically, HBCU campuses were one of the few places Black citizens could expect to be treated fairly in terms of employment. Black citizens who could not get past the front door of predominantly white businesses could compete for attractive jobs at HBCUs. This tradition continues and constitutes an important reason so many HBCUs boast such strong community support.

The closeness of HBCUs to their communities on occasion has led to nepotism and a variety of interferences in hiring that are not unheard of but perhaps less frequent on non-HBCU campuses. This behavior also may be why so many HBCUs are top-heavy with administrators. Administrative expense ratios at HBCUs as a group clearly exceed those at non-HBCUs, though the smaller sizes of HBCUs make it difficult for them to realize potential economies of scale and lower per-unit costs that might change this.

Summing It Up

We contend in Vital and Valuable that HBCUs are distinctive in many ways from non-HBCUs. This blog post provides a portion of the evidence that supports this hypothesis. Yet, even if HBCUs were less distinctive, they have become important, almost irreplaceable parts of the American higher education system. The United States would be immeasurably poorer if HBCUs did not exist, and the impact on Black Americans would be huge and dramatically negative. We invite readers of this post to read Vital and Valuable, which provides abundant rigorous empirical evidence in favor of these conclusions.

James V. Koch is Board of Visitors Professor of Economics emeritus and president emeritus at Old Dominion University, and Omari H. Swinton is chair, director of graduate studies, and professor in the Department of Economics at Howard University. He is a past president of the National Economics Association. Their new book Vital and Valuable: The Relevance of HBCUs to American Life and Education is the first in the Black Lives in the Diaspora: Past / Present / Future series—a collaboration between Howard University’s College of Arts and Sciences and Columbia University’s African American and African Diaspora Studies Department that focuses on publishing works on Black lives in a global diasporic context.

[i] U.S. Department of Education, College Navigator – National Center for Education Statistics.
[ii] U.S. Department of Education, The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.
[iii] U.S. Department of Education, The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.
[iv] Vital and Valuable, 38.
[v] U.S. Department of Education, College Navigator – National Center for Education Statistics.
[vi] Opportunity Insights Project, Table mrc_table 2, Data | Opportunity Insights.
[vii] Vital and Valuable, 50–51.

Leave a Reply