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Historically Black Colleges and Universities Have More White Students than You May Expect

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I took a part-time job as a grocery store cashier the summer after my freshman year of college. There were four or five other girls that had also been hired for summer jobs; we were forced to fill out paperwork, watch training videos, and learn how to run cash registers as a group. One of the other new employees was a girl I had known casually in high school, and she explained that she had come home from school for the summer to stay with her family and work. She was African American and told me that she was going to a black college called Bethune-Cookman because her grandmother was providing her with financial assistance to go there.

Bethune-Cookman University is one of over one hundred historically black colleges and universities in the United States. Historically black colleges are defined as institutions of higher learning that were established before 1964 with the intentions of serving the nation’s black students. They are both public and private schools; historically black colleges include two-year and four-year institutions, medical schools, and community colleges. They offer various bachelor’s degrees, graduate degrees, and doctoral degrees.

A Brief History of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

The majority of them are or were located in former slave territories of the United States—some historically black colleges operated for decades but eventually closed their doors due to the Great Depression, increased competition from other schools, and various financial difficulties.

Most of the historically black colleges and universities began after the Civil War, although Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, Lincoln University, and Wilberforce University were established prior to the Civil War.

Some educational institutions in the North and West allowed blacks to attend classes after the Civil War, but Southern states generally excluded blacks from land-grant colleges—colleges established with grant money provided by the Morrill Act in 1863. In 1890, a second Morrill Act was passed, requiring states to establish separate land-grand colleges for blacks if blacks were excluded from the others. Most of the historically black colleges and universities were founded in response to the Morrill Act of 1890.

There are currently 105 institutions in the United States which are considered historically black colleges and universities. A complete list of the historically black colleges and universities in the United States can be found at the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities section of the U.S. Department of Education website.

On November 8, 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Higher Education Act of 1965 into law. The Higher Education Act was intended to strengthen the educational resources of the country’s colleges and universities and to provide financial assistance for students. It also increased federal money given to universities and created scholarships, among other things.

The Act, which has been amended several times over the years, provides for direct federal aid to Part B institutions, which the U.S Department of Education defines 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 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.”

Enrollment at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Some people wonder if non-black students can attend historically black colleges—I wasn’t sure myself—and the answer is yes.

In fact, after the various Civil Rights laws that passed in the 1960s, historically black colleges that receive federal funding have undergone affirmative action policies to increase their racial diversity. This has actually caused many historically black colleges to now have non-black majorities of students. Several of the private historically black colleges are suffering financially because they are not supported by the government and some students simply cannot afford private school tuition, causing the number of black students attending these schools to drop significantly.

A 2007 Associated Press article reported that more and more white students are being recruited by black colleges, and the offer of scholarships and lower tuition is luring them in. The National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education claims that private, historically black schools cost an average of $10,000 less per year than their traditionally white counterparts.

Although some whites might feel out-of-place at a historically black college, Lezli Baskerville, the organization’s president and CEO, claims “If you want to know how to live in one, you can’t grow up in an all-white neighborhood, go to a predominantly white school, white cultural and social events, go to a predominantly white university and then thrive in a world that is today more black, more brown than before.”

White Students at Historically Black Colleges

Michael Roberts is one such student. He played football, joined a fraternity and proposed to his girlfriend during his years at Benedict College, a so-called black college. When interviewed, Roberts told the reporter, “When I tell people I attend Benedict, they comment, ‘Well, you’re not black.’ But it’s still a school; I’m still getting an education. You don’t have to be black to attend.”

In 2008, historically black Morehouse College made history by having a white valedictorian— Joshua Packwood became the first white valedictorian in the school’s 141-year history. Packwood told CNN reporters "because I’m one of the only white students, it’s easy to call me ‘the white boy’ … I’m naturally going to stand out.”

Packwood stands out in more ways than one. He was a Rhodes Scholar finalist that turned down a full scholarship to Columbia University to attend the all-black men’s university. Packwood, who grew up in poor areas and attended a predominantly black high school, says he did experience a few problems. “One guy came up to me and told me — he didn’t like the fact that I was here,” recalls Packwood. “He absolutely didn’t like the fact that I dated black women.”

That student’s response?

“I don’t necessarily support him being here, but because he’s here and we can’t discriminate against other races, I support him and his mission to be successful in life. I just kind of wish he had done it at a different institution.”

For More Information:

White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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