Historically Black colleges and universities have played a pivotal role in developing some of the most powerful leaders of the past.
Martin Luther King Jr., Booker T. Washington, Toni Morrison, Oprah Winfrey, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Michael Strahan, Chadwick Boseman, Taraji P. Henson, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs are among the illustrious, highly regarded notables and rich legacy of HBCUs.
Add to that distinguished list Kamala Harris, a Howard University alumnus, who became U.S. vice president in 2021, which further demonstrates that these schools continue to serve as entry points for students to prosper in the present and the future.
"Vice President Harris has swung her Howard hammer and shattered the proverbial glass ceiling into pieces that will not be put back together," Howard University President Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick told "Good Morning America."
"Our students can look at her example and realize that the distance between Howard University and the White House just got a little bit smaller," he continued.
What is an HBCU?
In 1837, The Institute for Colored Youth, now known as Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, became the first higher-education institution for Black people, initially providing elementary and secondary schooling for students who had no access to previous education.
Marybeth Gasman, Samuel DeWitt Proctor Endowed Chair in Education and professor at Rutgers University, told "Good Morning America" that "HBCUs exist because the United States fostered extreme segregation and oppression of African Americans, which resulted in their not being able to attend colleges and universities that already existed after the fall of slavery."
Gasman, who also is the executive director of the Rutgers Center for Minority Serving Institutions, adds that these institutions were established either just prior to or after the Civil War with the express purpose of educating African Americans.
In the early 1900s, HBCUs began to offer post-secondary courses shortly after the Second Morrill Act in 1890, which required states to provide land-grant institutions for Black students.
The Higher Education Act of 1965, signed by President Lyndon Johnson, established HBCUs as "any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of Black Americans, and that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association."
Today, there are over 100 HBCUs with more than 200,000 students enrolled.
Spelman College, ranked as the No. 1 HBCU, according to U.S. News & World Report, is the oldest HBCU for Black women in America.
The school's president, Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell, told "GMA" that "HBCUs make up 3% of the U.S. colleges and are a powerful engine of progress in our nation" and that graduates "go on to have dramatic global impact collectively across every industry and discipline."
Voting rights advocate and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Stacey Abrams, as well as Walgreens' newly appointed CEO Rosalind Brewer, the only Black woman currently leading a Fortune 500 company, are among Spelman College's many elite alumni.
HBCU students of today and the future
Shilas McCall, a criminal justice major at Hampton University, told "GMA" she was inspired to go to an HBCU after her experiences in a predominantly white high school, which she said made her "absolutely miserable."
"Every day entering school, I felt as if I was not welcomed and the students made me feel as if I didn't belong," said McCall. "I knew I couldn't do this another four years, so I decided to look into HBCUs. After researching more about them, I learned how our ancestors worked so hard to establish places for us to obtain a higher education."
Malachi Alexander had similar concerns when it came to his higher education. The 18-year-old from South Carolina decided to become a "Morehouse College man" after applying through an early decision application and has plans to start his freshman year in August.
"Many people have expressed that attending an HBCU is an experience like no other," Alexander told "GMA." "Though predominantly white institutions educate, they often fail to foster or take into consideration the needs of minority students that often make up a small portion of their population."
Eleise Richards, a Howard University graduate and founder of Experience The Legacy, Inc., a nationwide HBCU college fair, told "GMA" she continues to be passionate about HBCUs because they really don't get the credit they deserve.
"My HBCU experience transcended my life goals and expectations beyond imagination," said Richards. "It pushed me to keep up and excel amongst my peers having to constantly strive to stand out in the majority, for once, which helped build my confidence for a world where I'm the minority."
A reinvestment in HBCU sports
A reinvestment is also taking place in HBCU sports. Highly touted college basketball recruit Makur Maker chose an HBCU, Howard University, over highly ranked universities including UCLA, Kentucky and Memphis.
Maker is the highest-ranked player to commit to an HBCU since ESPN began tracking rankings in 2007, The Associated Press reported.
Shortly after, NFL Hall of Famer and two-time Super Bowl champion Deion Sanders, who is not an HBCU grad, announced he decided to accept the role of head coach at an HBCU, Jackson State University.
"Just sitting on that stage and looking my people in the eye and saying and proclaiming what I plan on doing with this program -- we have a coaching staff that has 84 years of NFL experienced combined coaching and playing -- and these kids just need the playing field level," Sanders said in an interview with "GMA" last year. "If you give us the same resources that these other schools have, we're going to prove that there is a highway that takes you from Jackson State all the way to the NFL."
HBCUs by the numbers
While HBCUs only make up 3% of colleges in the U.S., they enroll 10% of all African American students in the country, according to the United Negro College Fund (UNCF).
Additionally, 25% of African American graduates with STEM degrees come from HBCUs, "one of the most effective forces helping to diversify the STEM field both in the educational and professional realms," UNCF said.
According to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, HBCUs account for:
- 40% of all African American engineers
- 50% of all African American lawyers
- 50% of all African American public school teachers
- 80% of all African American judges
A report from the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Institute at Rutgers University's Graduate School of Educations, conducted on HBCUs and upward mobility, showed the role HBCUs play in moving African Americans up the socio-economic ladder.
A few standout findings from the report revealed that HBCUs enroll far more low-income students than predominantly white institutions (PWIs), nearly 70% of students at HBCUs attain at least middle-class incomes and there is less downward mobility at HBCUs than at PWIs.
"The mentality of HBCUs to leave no man behind and mission to serve as incubators of Black excellence is an inspiration within itself," Alexander said. "Attending an institution that makes an effort to nurture and create a sense of unity is what I desire."
Editor's Note: This story was originally posted on February 12, 2021.