Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Shaping the Past, Present, and Future

by College Counseling Associate Director Mr. David Brunk
Black History Month provides a perfect opportunity to investigate an important segment of the American higher education system – Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Some of these schools date back more than 150 years, so they are undeniably historical. But more importantly, these schools are essential to the fabric of American academia.
Beginning with the founding of Cheyney University of Pennsylvania in 1837, scores of HBCUs were established up to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. They were founded during an era in which Black Americans were legally denied full access to higher education. Many schools simply prohibited the enrollment of Black students. HBCUs share a common mission of serving the Black community and have educated millions of students, many of whom, historically, would have had few other options. As such, HBCUs have played an indispensable role in the educational and economic advancement of Black Americans over the generations. Decades after the Civil Rights Act, HBCUs remain integral to the higher education landscape.

A Mission of Equal Access to Higher Education

Today, the more than 100 HBCUs in 20 states, plus the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands, enroll about 300,000 students. Although they comprise only about 3% of the four-year colleges in the U.S., HBCUs have educated 80% of the nation’s black judges and 50% of its black doctors and teachers. HBCUs are not just for undergraduates; they confer about 8,000 master’s degrees and 2,500 doctorates each year.

Though HBCUs retain their mission of providing educational opportunities to Black Americans, they open their doors to students of all backgrounds. The percentage of non-Black students at HBCUs has risen steadily over the years; on average, more than 20% of students at HBCUs are not Black. In fact, HBCUs are some of the most diverse and desegregated schools in the country in terms of both students and staff.

There are four HBCUs in Maryland: Bowie State University, Coppin State University, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, and Morgan State University. These historic institutions (the newest one is 120 years old) have produced politicians (including mayors of Baltimore and Philadelphia), Olympic and professional athletes, presidents of colleges, and the 2019 Maryland Teacher of the Year. Today, these four schools enroll about 20,000 students from all over the country and around the world.

Excellence in Education, Unlimited Possibilities 

HBCUs come in many forms. They can be public or private, secular or religiously affiliated, and include two-year and four-year institutions. There are historically Black medical and law schools among many other graduate programs. Some of the nation’s most notable and influential cultural, political, scientific, athletic, and educational figures attended HBCUs.

Some examples:
  • Alice Marie Coachman (Tuskegee University; Albany State College) – first Black woman to win an Olympic gold medal (high jump; 1948)
  • Common (Florida A & M University) – Grammy/Golden Globe/Academy Award-winning musician
  • W.E.B. Du Bois (Fisk University) – Sociologist, civil rights leader, and writer
  • Joycelyn Elders (Philander Smith College) – Former Surgeon General of the United States
  • Ralph Ellison (Tuskegee University) – Scholar; author of National Book Award-winning Invisible Man
  • Medgar Evers (Alcorn State University) – Civil rights leader and martyr
  • Kamala Harris (Howard University) – U.S. Senator from California
  • Samuel L. Jackson (Morehouse College) – The highest-grossing actor of all time
  • Katherine Johnson (West Virginia State University) – NASA mathematician; lead character depicted in Hidden Figures
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr (Morehouse College) – Civil rights leader and martyr
  • Thurgood Marshall (Howard University) – Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
  • Christa McAuliffe (Bowie State) and Ronald McNair (North Carolina A&T University) - two astronauts on the Space Shuttle Challenger
  • Toni Morrison (Howard University) – Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning writer
  • Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State University) – NFL Hall of Famer
  • Michael Strahan (Texas Southern University) – NFL Hall of Famer; Emmy Award-winning host of "Good Morning America"
  • Alice Walker (Spelman College) – Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Color Purple
  • Oprah Winfrey (Tennessee State University) – Media giant; named one of the most influential women in the world
No celebration of Black History Month would be complete without celebrating the institutions that educated so many difference-makers in our history – and our present and future. HBCUs today have a great deal to offer. As you work through your college search and evaluate schools, perhaps they have something to offer you.

Your College Counselors Are Here to Help

Mr. Brunk and Ms. Coughlin work one-on-one with each student, which empowers them to advocate for our students, highlight special strengths, and support college applications with letters of recommendation. Having each spent years in college admissions before transitioning to college counseling, they stand ready to answer all of your questions about admission testing and application procedures. They are here to help Severn students and families navigate the college decision-making process to find the right match — for the people our students are and the people they hope to be.

Our counselors also hold events throughout the year to give Severn families the best resources possible to make informed decisions. Events include:
  • Annual alumni panel Q&A
  • College nights for juniors and seniors
  • Summer college workshops for seniors
  • Annual AIMS college fair
  • Paying for College: Helpful Strategies for Parents

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