Most HBCUs were established after the American Civil War, often with the assistance of northern United States religious missionary organizations. However, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania (1837) and Lincoln University (Pennsylvania) (1854), were established for blacks before the American Civil War. In 1856 the AME Church of Ohio collaborated with the Methodist Episcopal Church, a predominantly white denomination, in sponsoring the third college Wilberforce University in Ohio. Established in 1865, Shaw University was the first HBCU in the South to be established after the American Civil War.
The Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, defines a "part B institution" as: "...any historically black college or university that was established before 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans, and that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association determined by the Secretary [of Education] to be a reliable authority as to the quality of training offered or is, according to such an agency or association, making reasonable progress toward accreditation." Part B of the 1965 Act provides for direct federal aid to Part B institutions.
In 1862, the Federal government's Morrill Act provided for land grant colleges in each state. Some educational institutions in the North or West were open to blacks before the Civil War. But 17 states, mostly in the South, had segregated systems and generally excluded black students from their land grant colleges. In response, Congress passed the second Morrill Act of 1890, also known as the Agricultural College Act of 1890, requiring states to establish a separate land grant college for blacks if blacks were being excluded from the existing land grant college. Many of the HBCUs were founded by states to satisfy the Second Morrill Act. These land grant schools continue to receive annual federal funding for their research, extension and outreach activities. The Higher Education Act of 1965 established a program for direct federal grants to HBCUs, including federal matching of private endowment contributions.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed an executive order to distribute adequate resources and funds to strengthen the nation's HBCUs. His executive order manifested the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (WHIHBCU) which is a federally funded program that operates within the U.S. Department of Education.
Starting in 2001, directors of libraries of several HBCUs began discussions about ways to pool their resources and work collaboratively. In 2003, this partnership was formalized as the HBCU Library Alliance, "a consortium that supports the collaboration of information professionals dedicated to providing an array of resources designed to strengthen historically black colleges and Universities and their constituents."
Some colleges with a predominately black student body are not classified as a HBCU because they were founded (or opened their doors to African Americans) after the implementation of the Sweatt v. Painter and Brown v. Board of Education (1954) rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court (the court decisions which outlawed racial segregation of public education facilities) and the Higher Education Act of 1965.
Of the 107 HBCU institutions in the United States today, 27 offer doctoral programs and 52 provide graduate degree programs at the Master's level. At the undergraduate level, 83 of the HBCUs offer a bachelor's degree program and 38 of these schools offer associate degrees.
The portion of bachelor's degrees awarded to black students by HBCUs has steadily dropped from 35% in 1976 to 21.5% in 2001. From 1976 to 2001, total HBCU enrollment grew from 180,059 to 222,453, with most of this increase being attributable to the growth of black females' enrollment from 88,379 to 117,766. According to a New York Times Magazine article "With black students now attending schools that were once off limits, the percentage of black students who attend historically black colleges has declined from 90 percent in 1960 to just 11 percent today."
Following the enactment of Civil Rights laws in the 1960s, all educational institutions that receive federal funding have undertaken affirmative action to increase their racial diversity. Some historically black colleges and universities now have non-black majorities, notably West Virginia State University and Bluefield State College, whose student bodies have had large white majorities since the mid-1960s.
Several private HBCUs are struggling financially, due to the increased cost of delivering private education to students and declining financial aid for students. According to Darold Hamlin, a founder of the Emerging Technology Consortium, and his colleagues Byron Cherry and John Rosenthall, one way HBCUs can remain financially sustainable is through research and development funds. R&D funds from the federal government make up a large portion of revenues at the average public university. Because of that, Hamlin argues, HBCUs should structure themselves in a way that makes them eligible for those funds.
In 2006, the National Center for Education Statistics released a study showing that HBCUs had a $10.2 billion positive impact on the nation's economy with 35% coming from the multiplier effect.
According to a study published by the UNCF, historically black colleges and universities are responsible for producing approximately 70% of all black doctors and dentists, 50% of black engineers and public school teachers, and 35% of black lawyers.
In 2015, a Gallup poll was released showing students at HBCUs had a higher sense of well-being in five areas (purpose, social, financial, community, and physical) compared to students who did not attend HBCUs. Also black graduates of HBCUs were more than twice as likely than blacks at non-HBCUs to receive all three support measures at school (having at least one professor who made them excited about learning; having professors who cared about them; having a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals).
Also in 2015, the Bipartisan Congressional Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Caucus was established by U.S. Representatives Alma S. Adams and Bradley Byrne. The purpose of the caucus is to serve as an advocate for HBCUs on Capitol Hill. Over 30 U.S. Representatives are members of the caucus.
Every year, the U.S. Department of Education deems one week in the Fall as "National HBCU Week." During this week, several conferences and events are held in Washington, D.C. centered on discussing and celebrating HBCUs, as well as acknowledging select HBCU scholars and alumni.
As colleges work harder to maintain enrollment levels and because of increased racial harmony and the low cost of tuition, the percentage of non–African American enrollment has tended to climb. The following table highlights HBCUs with high non–African American enrollments:
Other HBCUs with relatively high non–African American student populations
The following list illustrates the percentage of white student populations currently attending historically black colleges and universities according to statistical profiles compiled by the U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges 2011 edition: Langston University 12%; Shaw University 12%; Tennessee State University 12%; University of Maryland Eastern Shore 12%; North Carolina Central University 10%. The U.S. News and World Report's statistical profiles indicate that several other HBCUs have relatively significant percentages of non-African American student populations consisting of Asian, Hispanic, International and white American students.
HBCU libraries have formed the HBCU Library Alliance. That alliance together with Cornell University have a joint program to promote the digitization of HBCU collections. The project is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Additionally, an increasing number of historically black colleges and universities are offering online education programs. As of November 23, 2010, 19 historically black colleges and universities offer online degree programs. Much of the growth in these programs is driven by partnerships with online educational entrepreneurs like Ezell Brown.
NCAA Division I has two historically black athletic conferences: Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and Southwestern Athletic Conference. The top football teams from the conferences have played each other in postseason bowl games: Pelican Bowl (1970s), Heritage Bowl (1990s) and Celebration Bowl (2010s). These conferences are home to all Division I HBCUs except for Tennessee State University, which instead competes in the Ohio Valley Conference.
The Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association and Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference are part of the NCAA Division II, whereas the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference is part of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Division I.See also the "Notable alumni" sections of each institution's article.
HBCUs have a rich legacy of matriculating many African-American leaders in the worlds of business, law, science, education, military service, entertainment, and sports. This list of alumni includes people such as Martin Luther King Jr., who began his studies at Morehouse College, following in the footsteps of his father, Martin Luther King, Sr.. Oprah Winfrey attended Tennessee State University to pursue a broadcasting career. W. E. B. Du Bois, relying on money donated by neighbors, attended Fisk University, from 1885 to 1888. After Dubois earned his doctorate, he became a professor of history, sociology, and economics at Clark Atlanta University, between 1897 and 1910. Althea Gibson entered Florida A&M University on a full athletic scholarship. Michael Strahan played one season of high school football, which was enough for him to get a scholarship offer from Texas Southern University. Thurgood Marshall attended Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore and was placed in classes with the best students. He later went on to graduate from Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania and Howard University School of Law. In 1933, he graduated first in his law class at Howard. Roscoe Lee Browne also attended Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania, where he graduated with a bachelor's degree, in 1946. Browne also occasionally returned to Lincoln, between 1946–52, to teach English, French and comparative literature. Spike Lee enrolled in Morehouse College, where he made his first student film, Last Hustle in Brooklyn. He took film courses at Clark Atlanta University and graduated with a BA in mass communication from Morehouse. Rod Paige earned a bachelor's degree from Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi. Anika Noni Rose attended Florida A&M University where she earned a bachelor's degree in theater. The Tuskegee Airmen were educated at Tuskegee University. Reverend Jesse Jackson, astronaut Dr. Ronald McNair, U.S. congressmen Edolphus Towns and Jesse Jackson Jr. all graduated from North Carolina A&T State University.