Study: Most Affordable Public and Private HBCUs in U.S., 2021 Edition

 February 3, 2021
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It’s official: Vice President Kamala Harris is the first graduate of a historically Black college or university (HBCU) in the White House. And, as part of President Joe Biden’s campaign pledge of $70 billion to HBCUs and minority-serving institutions, those schools are in line to get a much-needed boost.

With this in mind, Student Loan Hero researchers used the latest available data from the National Center for Education Statistics to rank the most affordable HBCUs in the U.S., something we first did in 2018. Our findings show that Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina remains the most affordable public HBCU.

From the most affordable public and private HBCUs to the hardest HBCU schools to get into, here’s what else we found.

Key findings

  • Elizabeth City State University in Elizabeth City, N.C., is the most affordable public HBCU for in-state undergraduates, at $3,260 annually.
  • Shorter College in North Little Rock, Ark., is the most affordable private HBCU for in-state undergraduates, at $5,596 annually.
  • Coahoma Community College in Clarksdale, Miss., is the most affordable public, 2-year HBCU for in-state undergraduates, at $3,003 annually.
  • Coppin State University in Baltimore has the lowest acceptance rate among HBCUs, with only 28% of applicants being accepted in the 2019-20 school year. Morehouse College in Atlanta, meanwhile, accepted 99.8% of applicants in that period.

Most affordable public HBCUs

Elizabeth City State University is the cheapest public HBCU — not including public community colleges — at $3,260 a year. It’s worth noting that 2019-20 in-state undergraduate tuition at the university was substantially lower than when it was No. 1 in our previous report on this topic.

Here are the five most affordable public HBCUs, and what else you should know about them.

1. Elizabeth City State University: Elizabeth City, N.C.

  • In-state undergraduate tuition: $3,260
  • Out-of-state undergraduate tuition: $7,260
  • Previous ranking among most affordable public HBCUs: No. 1

While out-of-state undergraduates would owe more than double that of in-state undergraduates at this North Carolina public HBCU, it’s the smallest difference between the two rates among our most affordable public schools.

The school, which is part of the University of North Carolina System, was founded in 1891 after a bill sponsored by Hugh Cale, an African American representative in the state General Assembly. It aimed to support Black students in their education, training them to become teachers themselves. Today, the school offers a wide variety of majors, including 27 undergraduate programs spread across three schools: The School of Humanities & Social Sciences, the School of Education & Business and the School of Science, Aviation, Health & Technology.

2. University of the Virgin Islands: St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

  • Undergraduate tuition for residents: $5,235
  • Undergraduate tuition for nonresidents: $14,496
  • Previous ranking among most affordable public HBCUs: No. 3

The University of the Virgin Islands moved up a spot on our list, finishing as the second most affordable public HBCU. Founded in 1962, it offers 47 undergraduate and graduate degree programs. These programs operate out of several schools, including the College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences, the College of Science & Mathematics, the School of Business, the School of Education and the School of Nursing.

The school has about 2,500 students spread across its two campuses on St. Thomas and St. Croix. It’s also the only school in a U.S. territory in our rankings.

Following a trend of schools opting out of SAT/ACT testing requirements — which some have called out as inherently biased against students of color — the university doesn’t require those test scores on applications. It also boasts the second-highest acceptance rate (98.4%) of the HBCUs we examined. However, it’s worth noting that the school has a 31% overall graduation rate and a 25% transfer-out rate. That, combined with the higher costs for nonresidents, could deter some students.

3. Fayetteville State University: Fayetteville, N.C.

  • In-state undergraduate tuition: $5,274
  • Out-of-state undergraduate tuition: $16,882
  • Previous ranking among most affordable public HBCUs: No. 2

Slipping to third is Fayetteville State University. Despite its rankings drop, both in-state and out-of-state tuition have only risen by $91. And it’s also a good sign for North Carolinians that this is the second public university in the state on our list.

Founded in 1867 and initially established in a chapel as the Howard School, the university boasts a wide variety of programs, including business and economics; education; health, science and technology; and humanities and social sciences.

Fayetteville State houses the Center for Defense and Homeland Security for those interested in cybersecurity and national security. The university also has also established satellite campuses on two North Carolina military bases.

4. Harris-Stowe State University: St. Louis

  • In-state undergraduate tuition: $5,484
  • Out-of-state undergraduate tuition: $10,116
  • Previous ranking among most affordable public HBCUs: No. 4

The only Midwest HBCU on this list, Harris-Stowe State University kept the fourth spot. Students can choose from 59 majors, minors, certificates and other academic options. To help meet its goals of supporting students of color in the St. Louis area, Harris-Stowe State University also offers a college preparatory academy.

The university traces its history back to almost a decade before the end of the Civil War as two teaching schools that were eventually combined. Its name honors William Torrey Harris, a superintendent of instruction in St. Louis Public Schools who also served as a U.S. education commissioner, as well as abolitionist and novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe.

5. Florida A&M University: Tallahassee, Fla.

  • In-state undergraduate tuition: $5,785
  • Out-of-state undergraduate tuition: $17,725
  • Previous ranking among most affordable public HBCUs: No. 8

With Florida Agricultural and Mechanical (A&M) University’s in-state tuition remaining the same from our previous report, the school rose from the eighth spot to fifth. Founded in 1887, the university began with just 15 students and two instructors. The university was part of a bill that set out to create two segregated institutions: One for white students and the other for Black students, the latter of which would become Florida A&M University.

Today, FAMU has nearly 10,000 students enrolled, offering 54 bachelor’s degrees, 29 master’s degrees, three professional degrees and 12 doctoral degrees. It’s the only HBCU in the State University System of Florida. The school also has the only college of pharmacy in the U.S. that offers nationally accredited Master of Public Health (MPH) and Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) degree programs.

Fell out of most affordable public HBCUs
  • Albany State University in Albany, Ga. (No. 5 to No. 8)

Most affordable private HBCUs

Private schools are generally more expensive than public schools. For instance, there were 12 two-year or public four-year HBCUs in the rankings that preceded any private HBCUs. And Shorter College, the most affordable private college on this list, is unique as it’s the U.S.’s only private, two-year HBCU. In fact, the 35 schools at the bottom of our most affordable list are all private.

That said, there are some cheaper private HBCUs that can offer students lower-cost options, especially if they’re looking for a faith-based school.

1. Shorter College: North Little Rock, Ark.

  • In-state and out-of state undergraduate tuition: $5,596
  • Previous ranking among most affordable private HBCUs: Unranked, as the college was graded among 2-year colleges in our previous iteration

Founded in 1886 by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Shorter College is a faith-based, two-year HBCU. As a private institution, this HBCU has no difference in tuition for in-state or out-of-state students (as with the rest on this list), so even those coming from out of state can cash in on the lower price tag. It’s worth noting that the school is quite small, at just about 570 students.

Students of Shorter College can study subjects including church leadership and ministry, childhood development, criminal justice, entrepreneurial studies and computer programming. It also has options available for those who are on parole, as well as those in the state juvenile justice system.

2. Simmons College of Kentucky: Louisville, Ky.

  • In-state and out-of-state undergraduate tuition: $6,390
  • Previous ranking among most affordable private HBCUs: No. 1

Ranking as the second most affordable private HBCU — and the 21st among all the HBCUs we studied — is Simmons College of Kentucky. Its $6,390 tuition comes in just over the maximum Pell Grant award for the 2020-21 academic year ($6,345).

Like Shorter College, Simmons has its roots in religion, via the Kentucky State Convention of Colored Baptist Churches, which proposed the college in the 1860s. It describes itself as an “institution of biblical higher education,” and this religious background does figure heavily into its educational offerings: Bachelor of Arts students are required to take a series of “Biblical-Ethical” courses to graduate.

3. Selma University: Selma, Ala.

  • In-state and out-of-state undergraduate tuition: $7,280
  • Previous ranking among most affordable private HBCUs: No. 2

Coming in third among private HBCUs is Selma University. The school opened in 1878 with an aim to educate Black Baptist ministers and freedmen, beginning with a first class of just four. It’s grown since but remains relatively small, with 540 students enrolled. Selma identifies itself as a Bible college, offering students higher education alongside religious studies.

Students can study topics including theology, health science, business, biology, physical education. Similar to Simmons College, general education requirements include 30 hours of Bible and theology coursework.

4. Southwestern Christian College: Terrell, Texas

  • In-state and out-of state undergraduate tuition: $8,131
  • Previous ranking among most affordable private HBCUs: No. 4

Maintaining its No. 4 position, Southwestern Christian College offers another affordable private HBCU option. The school was founded in 1948 and is sponsored by members of Churches of Christ.

It’s enrollment is tiny, though, as it only had 87 students in the fall of 2018. Students can choose from several associate and bachelor’s programs.

5. Arkansas Baptist College: Little Rock, Ark.

  • In-state and out-of-state undergraduate tuition: $8,760
  • Previous ranking among most affordable private HBCUs: No. 6

Behind Southwestern Christian College is Arkansas Baptist College, which rounds out the top five most affordable private HBCUs. The school was founded in 1884 by the Colored Baptists of Arkansas as the Minister’s Institute, changing its name the following year.

Religious studies remains one of the school’s primary educational programs, though other options include business administration, fine arts, public administration, social and behavioral sciences.

The school is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. However, students should be aware that the school appears to be on probation status for that accreditation.

Fell out of most affordable private HBCUs
  • Clinton College in Rock Hill, S.C. (No. 3 to No. 10)
  • Paul Quinn College in Dallas (No. 5 to No. 7)

Most affordable public, 2-year HBCUs

These types of schools generally dominated the top of our overall list (with the exception of Elizabeth City State University). Three of the top five public, two-year HBCUs are in Alabama.

1. Coahoma Community College: Clarksdale, Miss.

  • In-state undergraduate tuition: $3,003
  • Out-of-state undergraduate tuition: $3,003
  • Previous ranking among most affordable public, 2-year HBCUs: No. 1

2. Southern University at Shreveport: Shreveport, La.

  • In-state undergraduate tuition: $4,350
  • Out-of-state undergraduate tuition: $7,650
  • Previous ranking among most affordable public, 2-year HBCUs: No. 3

3. Shelton State Community College: Tuscaloosa, Ala.

  • In-state undergraduate tuition: $4,541
  • Out-of-state undergraduate tuition: $8,471
  • Previous ranking among most affordable public, 2-year HBCUs: No. 4

4. Trenholm State Community College: Montgomery, Ala.

  • In-state undergraduate tuition: $4,710
  • Out-of-state undergraduate tuition: $8,640
  • Previous ranking among most affordable public, 2-year HBCUs: No. 5

5. Bishop State Community College: Mobile, Ala.

  • In-state undergraduate tuition: $4,740
  • Out-of-state undergraduate tuition: $8,610
  • Previous ranking among most affordable public, 2-year HBCUs: No. 7
Fell out of the most affordable public, 2-year HBCUs
  • Gadsden State Community College in Gadsden, Ala. (No. 2 to No. 8)

Full rankings

Coppin State University hardest HBCU to get into

Coppin State University, a public school in Baltimore, was the only HBCU with an acceptance rate below 30%.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Morehouse College — a private school in Atlanta — had the highest acceptance rate in 2019-20 at 99.8%, though it’s unclear why the school has such a high acceptance rate. Morehouse was notable recently for having billionaire Robert F. Smith pledge to pay off every 2019 graduate’s student loan debt.

What’s next for HBCUs after $70 billion pledge from President Biden

Federal support for HBCUs has been on the rise, with the Strengthening Historically Black Colleges program providing $325 million in the 2020 fiscal year, up from $245 million in 2017. But even that is little compared to the $70 billion that Biden has pledged to HBCUs, particularly as schools continue to deal with the pandemic.

“A $70 billion pledge could absolutely go a long way toward helping HBCUs accelerate that transition, but their future is as much up in the air as any college’s, at least those without their own secure endowments,” said Andrew Pentis, Student Loan Hero senior writer for student loans.

Parents Borrow the Most to Send Their Kids to Art Schools, HBCUs

Of that larger pledge, $20 billion is meant to physically improve campuses, including upgrading facilities and creating research centers. So that may help level the playing field for these schools when it comes to research, Pentis added.

However, Harris’ rise to the vice presidency and Alabama U.S. Sen. Doug Jones’ loss in 2020 means that support for HBCUs may be lessened in the Senate, which could have its own set of consequences. (Jones is an ardent supporter of HBCUs.)

Student debt crisis disproportionately impacts Black Americans

Students of color tend to have a harder time when it comes to taking on debt for higher education. In fact, a 2020 Student Loan Hero study found that 87% of Black students take out federal student loans to pay for college, compared with 70% white of students. Plus, 60% of Black students borrow more than $29,500, compared with 35% of students overall.

“Because Black students are more likely to borrow education loans than their peers of other backgrounds, it puts more of an inevitable burden on HBCUs than other schools,” Pentis said. “They have more work to do to help their students afford attendance, it’s just a reality. And a billions-of-dollars pledge from the Biden administration can help, but it’s not the only solution.”

Aside from replacing loans with grants and scholarships in financial aid packages, Pentis said the onus is on admissions and aid officers to educate families about paying for school in the best ways possible.

“It’s also incumbent on these schools to get creative with how they help their students when those grants and scholarships aren’t enough,” Pentis said.

This is already starting to happen, as some HBCUs are working with the nonprofit Student Freedom Initiative (Smith is the organization’s founding director and board chair) to connect students with income-share agreements as an alternative to high-interest private student loans. That program is set to launch this year.

How to find the right HBCU for you

Finding the right school is always a challenge. Here are some tips for those looking within the world of HBCUs.

  • Consider your cost of attendance: Build a college list that takes into consideration school cost and record of performance. “You might have to weigh the pros and cons of attending the lower-cost HBCU in your state versus attending the more prestigious HBCU a few states away,” Pentis said.
  • Ask about student support options: Beyond the price tag, students should also consider the level of support they might need from their school, and how each school aligns with those needs. First-generation students might want more assistance than other students — a smaller school, with more accessible resources, might work better.
  • Look at graduation rates: Unfortunately, HBCUs tend to have lower rates of graduation within six years of enrollment than other schools — that could deter students from attending. That is, of course, only one piece of the puzzle, but it’s something that will have to be factored into your search for an HBCU.

Published in Press, Research