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HBCUs (Historically Black College and University) Student smiles on the street with a book bag on his back
Photographer: Yingchou Han | Source: Unsplash

In this article, CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Expert McKenzie provides an overview on HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). For more guidance on the college applications process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.


In life, it may feel difficult for you to find a place where you feel welcomed and understood. Choosing which college to attend is no different.

It may feel overwhelming to find a school that will not only challenge you academically but also give you a sense of community — especially when coming from a minority background. However, perhaps you just overlooked that perfect school?

As a part of our series on overlooked schools, I will provide a glance into the world of HBCUs. This guide will provide a brief overview of the academic, personal, and financial opportunities available to students at HBCUs.

What is an HBCU?

A Historically Black College or University (HBCU) is an institution initially intended to educate Black or African American students. These schools were established before the enactment of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which allowed for Black students to attend Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs). HBCUs play an important role in the Black community because they paved the way for Black Americans to receive an education. Today, many Black students choose to attend HBCUs because of the these schools’ history, values, culture, and community.


Types of HBCUs

Currently, there are 107 HBCUs in the United States. Of these schools, 56 are private and 51 are public institutions. Eighty-seven of them are four-year colleges or universities, and all but two HBCUs are located on the East Coast. Though there are only 107 schools recognized as HBCUs, there are many other majority-BIPOC institutions available.

Like other institutions, HBCUs provide a wide array of academic programs and opportunities to students. For instance, liberal arts schools such as Xavier University of Louisiana offer programs in Philosophy, English, Teaching, and International Affairs as well as Africana Studies, Dance, and Music Engineering. HBCUs can often serve as launching points for students interested in the performing arts. They also offer STEM and research-based programs like Architecture, Agriculture, Computer Science, and Nursing. Some popular research institutions include Howard University, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. HBCUs rank as some of the top schools in Agricultural studies and other STEM fields. While most HBCUs are co-ed, single-sex HBCUs include Spelman College, which is a women’s college, and Morehouse College, which is a men’s college.

Programs & Opportunities at HBCUs

In addition to the rigorous academics that HBCUs offer, students at HBCUs can access various opportunities for career advancement. Many of these schools have the top pre-professional (i.e. medicine, veterinarian, and law) and graduate programs in the country. Some unique programs include the exchange between Spelman College and Barnard as well as Howard University and Columbia University. In these programs, students can study for a semester at the partner institution. Moreover, the partnerships, alumni, and locations of many HBCUs make them great hubs for internships and research opportunities.

Support provided to students attending HBCUs

HBCUs offer a number of academic, career, and financial support structures through resource centers and clinics. Additionally, class sizes are typically smaller at HBCUs, which fosters deeper relationships between faculty and students.

A vital aspect of HBCUs is the predominantly Black or African American body of instructors, faculty, and administration. This community provides students with role models that share similar cultures and experiences. Most attendees of HBCUs value this characteristic because of the social and emotional support it provides.

Social Aspects of HBCUs

The HBCU Experience

Arguably the most significant aspect of HBCUs is the social environment. Many students feel drawn to HBCUs due to their rich cultural identity, history, celebrations, traditions, and community. It is truly the HBCU experience that sets them apart from other schools.

One of many cultural stables of HBCUs is the homecoming game. Like at other schools, the homecoming game is filled with crowds of fans decked out in the school colors. However, the pageantry makes an HBCU homecoming game one of a kind. Not only will you find people in jerseys and face paint, but you will also see some in big church hats with ornate feathers and others in full tuxedos. Other schools may see the band as a placeholder, but at an HBCU, the halftime show is the main event! The Battle of the Bands, the majorette dancers on line, the drum major doing splits and flips… it could put the Super Bowl to shame. You will see step shows, eat incredible food, and be amazed by the events outside of the stadium. You might not even want to go in!

Another often overlooked aspect of HBCUs is their diversity. While the student population of HBCUs is typically over 90% Black or African American, this community remains incredibly diverse. Students and faculty come from all walks of life and provide a variety of perspectives, experiences, cultural knowledge, religious ideologies, and political philosophies, which makes for a vibrant community. Students and faculty of other races, ethnicities, and nationalities also bolster the community’s diversity. The shared experiences, curiosity, and sense of community between students, however, allows the school climate to feel inclusive and engaging.

Clubs and Organizations at HBCUs

Students at HBCUs participate in many different clubs and organizations. A popular option for students is Greek Life, as almost all of the first Black Fraternities and Sororities were founded at HBCUs. This group of Black Greek Life is known as the Divine Nine. These organizations were founded throughout the 20th century on different campuses and help Black students to display their own cultural traditions as a part of their college experience. Greek Life in the Black community usually extends beyond undergrad, as there are many graduate chapters, post-grad chapters, and legacy chapters that continue these organizations’ traditions and community.

Students can also join career and interest-based clubs on campus to make friends and build their networks. The Black Student Union, the National Society of Black Engineers, step teams, and journalism clubs (among other groups) make up a vast array of outlets for students to express themselves and further their careers.

The Application Process for HBCUs

Application Platforms

You can apply to most HBCUs through similar platforms as other colleges and universities — namely, the Common Application or Coalition Application. However, some schools such as Fisk University are not on the Common Application, so you have to apply to them individually. Each school has its own application, which you can find on their website. For a more streamlined process, you can apply to up to 62 HBCUs with one application through the Common Black College Application (the “Black Common App”) for a small fee.

The application for most HBCUs tends to be shorter than average, as many do not ask applicants to complete supplemental essays unless they are applying for certain programs or scholarships.

Admissions Decisions

HBCUs follow similar admissions timelines to other schools for Early and Regular Decision. A bonus of applying to HBCUs is most of them offer Early Action, so you can apply to as many as you would like earlier. Some schools even offer rolling admissions.

Financial Aid at HBCUs

Merit-based/Need-based Aid

HBCUs on average have a lower cost-of-attendance than most institutions, making them a more affordable option for most students. HBCUs offer both need-based and merit-based financial aid to students, leaning more heavily on the latter option. The merit-based aid award is determined by the applicant’s academic achievements such as their GPA and test scores in addition to non-academic merits such as leadership or volunteer experience. When applying for need-based aid, students most often do not have to complete the CSS profile, as most HBCUs only use the FAFSA to determine the aid award. Students should still check to make sure a given school does not have any additional requirements for aid, as some schools do have their own aid application process in addition to the FAFSA.

In order to get the best financial aid at an HBCU, it is best to apply earlier since many operate on a “first-come-first-served” basis. This means students should submit their applications and FAFSA as soon as possible if they require aid.


In response to the pandemic, many schools have become test-optional. Test-optional means they will not require students to submit SAT or ACT scores as a part of the admissions requirements. Though many HBCUs have been offering this option as well for students, there is a catch.

HBCUs still use merit-based financial aid, so the aid students receive is still dependent on their test scores and GPA. If students want to get aid or scholarships, they should still take the SAT or ACT in order to qualify. Make sure to read the school’s policy to determine if you need to take the exam even if the school is test-optional.


In order to assist students attending HBCUs, various companies and organizations have established scholarships to cover costs of attendance and research. Many of these scholarships cater to African American or Black students and other minority groups, low-income students, and first generation students. Some organizations include the United Negro College Fund, McDonald’s, and Apple.

Some individual institutions and states also offer funding to students going to HBCUs. Popular scholarships include the Howard University Freshman Scholarship or the Cooperative Development Energy Program (CDEP) offered by Fort Valley State University, which is a Dual-Degree STEM program in partnership with schools such as Georgia Tech and Penn State.


I hope this brief look into the vast opportunities and experiences that HBCUs offer has given you a starting point for your admissions journey. Our advisors are also here to assist you in navigating the many options in order to find the best school for you. Whether you attend an HBCU or not, you will gain immense knowledge and experience throughout your time in college.

This informational essay on Historically Black Colleges and Universities was written by McKenzie Murray, Cornell University ‘24. If you want to get help with your college applications from McKenzie or other CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Expertsregister with CollegeAdvisor.com today.