Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Their Significance and Impact

Published: November 4, 2022

by Aaron Whittaker, 2022 Dell Health Undergraduate Scholar

HBCUs have been integral in addressing racial disparities in higher education since their beginnings over a century ago. The oldest HBCU in the United States is Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, originally known as the African Institute. Quaker philanthropist Richard Humphrey established it in 1837 to educate African Americans and prepare them for gainful employment. The majority of HBCUs were established between 1865-1900, with most of these originating in 1867, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Today there are 107 HBCUs identified by the U.S. Department of Education. To learn more about HBCUs and their history, click here.

These schools have provided opportunities for Black Americans to pursue formal education for nearly two centuries, and today they continue to produce scholars of the highest caliber in various fields: 80% of all Black federal judges and 75% of all Black Americans holding a doctorate received HBCU undergraduate training. Outside of scholastic achievement, these colleges and universities are known for their diverse learning environments, campus climates that foster success, and their roots in faith, community, and service.

  Although the cultural and educational significance of HBCUs cannot be ignored, the large economic impact of these schools often is overlooked. Without these schools, the racial wealth gap would be even higher than it already is: HBCUs typically provide a better value education, helping to reduce or eliminate student loan debt that Black students would otherwise be at risk for accumulating.

Student debt aside, HBCUs play other important economic roles as well. The nine HBCUs in Texas alone have a tremendous positive impact on our state economy. “HBCUs are economic engines in their Texas Communities and beyond, generating substantial economic returns year after year,” according to the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), and the numbers do not lie. The total combined economic impact of Texas HBCUs is $1.3 billion, generating 11,490 jobs and accumulating $11.4 billion in total lifetime earnings for graduates.

Texas HBCUs continue to go above and beyond in addressing their communities’ unique needs. Paul Quinn College, located in a federally recognized food desert in Dallas, converted its football field into an organic farm that has – to date – provided over 30,000 pounds of organic food since its establishment in March 2010. Austin’s own Huston-Tillotson University, recently added to the National Register of Historic Places, joined forces with the Austin Housing Repair Coalition to provide free housing repairs to low-income homeowners in an effort to fight gentrification. These colleges and universities are working diligently to serve not only their students, but also the communities in which they reside, all while continuing to make history in the process.

The presence of HBCUs and their positive impact should not be overlooked. ??As the U.S. and the higher education system continue to grow, HBCUs will play a fundamental role in the lives of underserved and marginalized populations and communities. As Dr. Jemayne King of Johnson C. Smith University observed in his article examining the importance of HBCUs, “America's welfare is forever connected to the past, present, and future of the Historically Black College and University (HBCU).”

The Center is committed to supporting HBCU’s as well as Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), most notably through its partnership with Huston-Tillotson University, Concordia University Texas, and St. Edward’s University, all based in Austin, Texas. Over the past several years, the Center has worked with Huston-Tillotson, Concordia, and St. Edward’s to recruit the next generation of public health professionals through the Dell Health Undergraduate Scholar (DHUS) Program. This internship offers undergraduates from HBCUs and HSIs the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in public health research and community-based programs. All of our DHUS students have continued their education in graduate programs (including public health and policy) and/or pursued careers in education or public health. We aim to continue increasing the public health workforce in Central Texas by recruiting and training a diverse community of exceptional public health students through our partnership with HBCUs and HSIs.

If you or someone you know would like more information about the Dell Health Undergraduate Scholar Program based at the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living, UTHealth School of Public Health, please check out our DHUS webpage.