HBCUs Are “Cautiously Optimistic” Under the Biden-Harris Administration

Who owns HBCUs? Learn more about historically Black colleges and universities, their founders, their public/private statuses, and their future.

Dan Clarendon - Author

Mar. 18 2021, Published 3:49 p.m. ET

Howard University, a private, federally chartered HBCU in Washington, D.C.
Source: Getty Images

In just one of the ways she made history of Inauguration Day, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris became the first alum from a historically Black college or university (HBCU) to take the United States’ second-highest office when she was sworn in on January 20.

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“This is monumental, this is huge for HBCUs to possibly be represented at the highest levels of federal government,” Jelani Favors, an assistant professor of history at Clayton State University told Marketwatch in August when Harris joined now-President Joe Biden’s ticket. 

HBCUs are also in the spotlight these days because Biden has pledged to invest more than $70 billion in HBCUs, tribal colleges And universities (TCUs) and minority-serving institutions (MSIs).

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“I think we are cautiously optimistic that the presence of HBCU graduates in this administration and Cabinet really sends a strong signal that these institutions will be prioritized,” Benedict College President Roslyn Clark Artis told The Olympian recently.

How many HBCUs are there and who owns them?

Kamala Harris
Source: Getty Images

Kamala Harris speaks at Howard University on Jan. 21, 2019

As of 2018, there were 101 historically Black colleges and universities located in 19 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, of which 51 were public schools and 50 were private schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

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Private HBCUs include Howard University, Morehouse College, Spelman College, and Dillard University. Public HBCUs include Florida A&M University, North Carolina A&T State University, Prairie View A&M University, and Texas Southern University, to name a few.

The NCES also reported that HBCU enrollment across the country rose from 47 percent (going from 223,000 to 327,000) between 1976 and 2010 but then fell 11 percent (dropping to 299,000) by 2018. During the same time spans, enrollment at all degree-granting institutions rose 91 percent and fell 7 percent, respectively.

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Who founded historically Black colleges and universities?

In a 2017 Washington Post column—written in response to problematic statements from then-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos—Shirley Carswell said it’s a myth that all HBCUs were founded by Black people. 

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Carswell pointed out that the white Union general Oliver O. Howard was the namesake and co-founder of Howard University, for example. And two white teachers named Sophia B. Packard and Harriet E. Giles founded Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary, now known as Spelman College. (Like Howard University, Spelman’s namesake was white: The school was named after anti-slavery activists Laura Spelman Rockefeller and her parents.)

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Which HBCUs are Black-owned?

Public schools and non-profit private schools do not have owners. They are typically held in trusts that are overseen by governing boards. For-profit private schools have owners, but none of the 51 private HBCUs is a for-profit school, as the NCES reported.

That said, Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, Ohio, bills itself as “the nation’s oldest private, historically Black university owned and operated by African Americans” and was founded in 1856 as a joint venture between the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, per HBCU Lifestyle.


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