What is an HBCU? Everything you need to know about historically Black colleges or universities

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Some Black students dream of going to them, following in the footsteps of sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers and trailblazers whose names have been etched into history.

They're HBCUs—historically Black colleges or Universities—and there are more than 100 of them in the U.S., said Leslie Jones, founder and director of The Hundred-Seven, an organization that promotes the institutions for Black students and was named after the number of HBCUs in the country at the time.

Jones, who went to Howard University in Washington, D.C., defines HBCUs the same way as the Department of Education, basing it on when the schools were founded.

"(That's) 1964 or earlier," she told U.S. TODAY. "They were founded with the purpose of educating either a former slave or their descendants."

When were HBCUs first established, and why?

The earliest HBCUs were founded in Pennsylvania and Ohio, before the American Civil War. One of them, the Institute for Colored Youth, opened in 1837 on a Philadelphia farm, Jones said. Today, it's called Cheyney University of Pennsylvania.

Also considered one of the first HBCUs is the Ashmun Institute, which was founded in Pennsylvania in 1854 and became Lincoln University in 1866, Jones said.

Many HBCUs were founded as a response to segregation and slavery, she said.

At one point, there were hundreds of HBCUs, but some struggled to keep their doors open or merged with other schools, said Carlos Holmes, director of news services and university historian at Delaware State University.

Where are HBCUs located?

HBCUs are mainly concentrated in the Southeast and mid-Atlantic, with some located as far north as Ohio and Pennsylvania, and as far west as Texas and Oklahoma.

What are the top HBCUs?

According to U.S. News & World Report, the top three HBCUs are Spelman College, Howard University and Xavier University of Louisiana.

U.S. News & World Report uses factors such as graduation and retention rates, , and graduate indebtedness to score each HBCU.

Spelman: Located in Atlanta, Spelman is the oldest historically Black for women in America, according to the ranking site. The private college has 2,097 students.

Howard: In Washington, D.C., Howard has an enrollment of more than 11,000 and is known for producing a great deal of the nation's Black doctors, dentists, pharmacists and engineers, according to the school's website.

Xavier University of Louisiana: Nestled in the heart of New Orleans, Xavier University of Louisiana has more than 3,300 students and has gained recognition as a top sciences and the liberal arts university. One of the university's claims to fame is the high number of students who complete medical school—95.5% of Black Xavier graduates in 2013, according to the university.

Here's the top 10 in its entirety:

  • No.1—Spelman College
  • No. 2—Howard University
  • No. 3—Xavier University of Louisiana
  • No. 4 (tie)—Hampton University, Morehouse College and Tuskegee University
  • No. 7—Florida A&M University
  • No. 8—North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University
  • No. 9—Fisk University
  • No. 10 (tie)—Claflin University and Delaware State University

What are some affordable HBCUs students can consider, and what about lesser-known schools?

Jones said some HBCUs are quite inexpensive to attend if you look outside of private schools, such as Howard and Morehouse. Even Howard's tuition compared to other Washington schools like Georgetown or American University tuition is cheaper, she said.

"Howard might, in your mind, be your dream college," Jones said. "You get in, you might not be able to afford Howard ... That doesn't mean you can't go to Dillard and be extremely successful. It doesn't mean you can't instead go to Alabama State and be able to afford it and still get an outstanding education."

Some schools such as Elizabeth City State University and Fayetteville State University cost about $5,000 a year depending on whether you're in or out of state, she said.

Affordability is relative, though, and she encourages people to do more research.

According to U.S. News & World Report, some other less expensive schools include:

  • Mississippi Valley State University ($6,746+)
  • Alcorn State University ($7,596+)
  • Southwestern Christian College ($8,132+)
  • Jackson State University ($8,445+)
  • Rust College ($9,900+)
  • Texas College ($10,000+)

According to Jones, other schools students may not be aware of include Clinton College in South Carolina and Coppin State University in Baltimore.

For many HBCUs, a struggle 'just to survive'

Jones said of the HBCUs listed by the Department of Education, two are closed and two are unaccredited. Morris Brown College in Atlanta lost its accreditation 20 years ago but regained it this year, she said.

Delaware State also gained accreditation in 1945, but lost it in 1949, said Holmes, university historian. The university faced a series of blows, including a lack of funding from the state, a closure causing some students to try to enroll at the University of Delaware, and a lawsuit filed by prospective students to admit them into the segregated school. Delaware State got its accreditation back in 1957, Holmes said.

He said it's incredible that HBCUs have survived all these years.

"I think that people ought to understand the struggles that many HBCUs have undergone just to survive, and notice some HBCUs just didn't," he said.

And for those who want to support HBCUs, one of the best ways is financially, Jones said. HBCU alumni often enter service fields with lower salaries like , nursing and teaching, and HBCUs serve a large amount of lower-income students and first-generation college students who have to take out loans and graduate with debt, she said.

Do you have to be Black to go to an HBCU?

No.

"We've always welcomed anyone as long as the law allowed us to welcome anyone," said Jones, from The Hundred-Seven. "The only reason our demographic started off the way that it did was because the laws required that it be so."

In fact, the first five students at Howard University were white women, she said.

Their fathers were trustees of the university and weren't allowed to get an education anywhere else in D.C. Their fathers wanted them to get a college education, so they enrolled them at Howard, Jones said.

"The majority of students at Howard have long-been African American," she told U.S. TODAY. "But it was based on laws that white people created."

What's the value of an HBCU education?

Jones said some people think students who graduate from HBCUs aren't taken seriously, nor will they get a great education, and that HBCUs are "a failure," but these ideas are simply not true.

HBCUs draw the attention of recruiters looking for diversity more than other schools, and they have "unmatched" history, culture and mentorship, she said.

"The idea of being on a campus where you know that 100 years ago, there were people who were trailblazers walking across a campus that look like you is something that just you can't match," she said.

The curriculums, while not identical to non-HBCUs, usually offer programs students are interested in, especially undergraduate students, she said. And there's "Black history woven across the curriculum" said Jones, who recalls taking Black Philosophy at Howard University.

And yes, HBCUs are still very much relevant, despite what some may think, said Holmes, from Delaware State University. HBCUs provide a welcoming environment for all students, especially African Americans.

"There's very much a place for HBCUs these days," he said. "There's so much emphasis on historically Black colleges and universities because it is part of this country's history. It's part of this country's higher education history, and it should never be forgotten."

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