African Americans and College Education by the Numbers

HBCUs make up only three percent of the country’s colleges and universities, but enroll 10 percent of all African American students and produce almost 20 percent of all African American graduates. 

At times, the numbers are discouraging. Many of the country’s colleges have historically struggled to retain and graduate African American students, especially first-generation students from low-income families. Overall, research shows that, despite progress, there remains significant room for improvement. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), on the other hand, see some of the most impressive numbers when it comes to African American students’ success, showing how vital HBCUs really are to the success of black college students in America.

Even before graduating high school, many black students lack the resources needed to get into college and to succeed there. Only 57 percent of black students have access to the full range of math and science courses necessary for college readiness, compared to 81 percent of Asian American students and 71 percent of white students. A recent UNCF report, “A Seat at the Table: African American Perceptions in K-12 Education” states that African American students are more likely to take remedial college courses than other student groups. The resulting lack of preparedness shows up in standardized test scores. Sixty-one percent of black students who took the ACT in the 2015 high school graduating class met none of the four ACT college readiness benchmarks, nearly twice the 31 percent rate for all students. Low test scores make the rest of the college application process more difficult. Getting accepted to a school, earning scholarships, and succeeding in later studies becomes more of a challenge.

Barriers to graduating from college for some African American students is evidenced by the relatively low retention rates of black students across the nation. Among students enrolled in four-year public institutions, 45.9 percent of black students complete their degrees in six years—the lowest rate compared to other races and ethnicities. Black men have the lowest completion rate at 40 percent. This high dropout rate is partially due to the fact that 65 percent of African American college students are independent, meaning they must balance pursuing a degree with full-time work and family responsibilities. In fact, UNCF has found that students at HBCUs borrow more than students from non-HBCUs because African American families generally have lower assets and incomes that limit their ability to contribute toward college expenses.

Clearly, these numbers point to the need for growth. Still, a significant amount of evidence points toward progress, especially when it comes to the experiences of students at HBCUs. Though HBCUs make up only three percent of the country’s colleges and universities, they enroll 10 percent of all African American students and produce almost 20 percent of all African American graduates. An HBCU graduate can expect to earn an additional $927,000 in their lifetime, which is 56 percent more than they could expect to earn without their HBCU degrees or certificates.


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Studies have found that lightening the financial load of college is key for many black students seeking success. On average, the cost of attendance at an HBCU is 28 percent less than attending a comparable non-HBCU. Forty percent of HBCU students report feeling financially secure during college, as opposed to 29 percent of black students at other schools. UNCF scholarship recipients have a 70 percent six-year graduation rate, as opposed to the previously mentioned 45.9 percent average.

These are only a few of the many reasons why UNCF has continued to support the nation’s HBCUs. Over seven decades, UNCF has raised more than $4.8 billion for scholarships and other direct supports for its 37 member institutions, helping more than 450,000 students graduate. We’re working toward a brighter future, helping HBCUs make a real difference with real results. And you can make a difference—sign your name in support of HBCUs and the impact they are making.


Brian Bridges, Ph.D. is Vice President, Member Engagement and Research for UNCF.

Tagged as: ResearchOp-Ed