Black students may want to consider attending minority-serving institutions (MSIs), which include historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other primarily black institutions (PBIs), but these are just some of the possibilities. Hamilton recommends looking past the type of school—especially the well-known "name" institutions—and focusing instead on what's reasonable, which may be a smaller school closer to home. He advises students to "attend the institution that is most accessible and affordable and can support you in whatever you want to study."
One final piece of advice in the college selection process is for students to thoroughly research the faculty teaching the subjects they plan to study. Not only will it ensure they get the education they're envisioning, it will help students connect with professors and build a network of support for the future. "If you're interested in engineering, for example," explains Hamilton, "then you should go on the school's website and look at the professors who teach in the college of engineering. What is their focus? What are they doing? This'll get you connected to undergraduate research, and this'll get you job opportunities."
Should I Attend an HBCU?
Among the many options available are historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), which include Spelman College, Hampton University, and Florida A&M University. These colleges were founded prior to the civil rights movement of the 1960s to provide higher education for Black students. Many of them, such as Howard University, Albany State University, and Tuskegee University, now offer online degree programs, giving students even more possibilities for earning their college degrees.
There are just over 100 HBCUs in the U.S., about half of which are public and the other half private. Although this represents only 3% of the nation's institutions of higher education, these schools enroll 10% of all African American students and produce nearly 20% of all African American graduates. One quarter of HBCU graduates earn degrees in STEM subjects.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) Nationwide
- Alabama: 14
- Arkansas: 4
- Delaware: 1
- Florida: 4
- Georgia: 10
- Kentucky: 2
- Louisiana: 6
- Maryland: 4
- Mississippi: 7
- Missoury: 2
- North Carolina: 10
- Ohio: 2
- Oklahoma: 1
- Pennsylvania: 2
- South Carolina: 8
- Tennessee: 6
- Texas: 9
- Virginia: 5
- Washington DC: 2
- West Virginia: 2
- Not Pictured
- U.S. Virgin Islands: 1
Source: HBCU First
One advantage of attending an HBCU, according to the UNCF, may be cost. As of 2015, tuition at HBCUs was 28% less than at comparable non-HBCU schools. The UNCF adds that 40% of HBCU students report positive feelings about their financial situation while in college, as opposed to 29% of Black students attending other schools.
Still, an HBCU may be too much of a financial stretch for some, but Stone says there might be a solution: "A lot of universities offer a national student exchange program where you can attend an HBCU for up to a year or two, utilizing your financial aid package that you have at your home institution. You don't have to throw away the idea of attending an HBCU if finances are a challenge for you."
Another benefit is the sense of inclusivity that many students feel at an HBCU. As Hamilton describes it, HBCUs were created and built to serve and support students who feel marginalized. "The thing about historically Black colleges," he adds, "is that race is at the center. So if you want to be among Black students and be in community with other Black folk, you should go to an HBCU." But he's also quick to add that "Black people are not a monolith." Before selecting any school, students should carefully explore how they see themselves fitting in on a campus.
Advice on Applying for Scholarships and Financial Aid
All students who are enrolled in accredited colleges and universities are entitled to apply for federal financial aid, whether they are pursuing their degrees on campus or online. Hundreds of billions of dollars in aid are disbursed each year to all types of college students, but especially to those who come from low-income families. According to the College Board, approximately $242 billion in financial aid was awarded in the 2019-2020 school year.
To find out if they qualify for financial aid, and if so, for how much, students should begin by filling out and submitting a Free Application for Federal Financial Aid (FAFSA). Reviewers then determine whether each student can receive federal aid (such as a Pell grant), other state- and school-sponsored scholarships, student loans, or other types of assistance.
According to the College Board, approximately $242 billion in financial aid was awarded in the 2019-2020 school year.
The FAFSA can be cumbersome to fill out, and it must be renewed annually. Students and families who need help completing the form can turn to their high school or college financial aid counselors for free assistance. They can also find answers to many questions on the FAFSA website.
Private African American scholarships typically require separate applications in addition to the FAFSA, and these applications often require letters of recommendation and a written or sometimes a video essay. Personal statements like these are opportunities for students to make their case for receiving financial assistance.
When composing essay answers, Hamilton recommends being direct and straightforward. He adds that students don't have to engage in what he calls "trauma bonding," or telling the story of personally traumatic experiences, which can be traumatizing in itself, as a means of landing a scholarship. Stone offers several alternative ideas for applicants, such as focusing on the lessons they've learned from their experiences, the transferable skills they're developing in school, and their perceptions of what it means to be a person of color in whatever place and situation they're in.