How to Apply to HBCUs & TCUs | College Essay Guy (2023)

Ethan Sawyer

Ethan Sawyer

How to Apply to HBCUs & TCUs | College Essay Guy (1)

This post was written by independent education journalist Charlotte West, Jamiere Abney (Colgate University), Jamon Pulliam (Viewpoint School), and Nikki Pitre (Aspen Institute’s Center for Native American Youth)


  • What is a minority-serving institution?
  • Things to Keep in Mind When Exploring Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs)
    • Some questions to ask about a PWI
  • Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)
    • A Brief History of HBCUs
    • Why Should You Consider Attending an HBCU
  • Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs)
    • A Brief History of Tribal Colleges and Universities
    • Why You Should Consider a Tribal College or University
    • Questions for Native American Students to Ask

More and more students from Generation Z--the most racially and ethnically diverse generation--are going to college. Even though the number of students of color might be higher than ever, if you identify as a racial or ethnic minority you may want to think about a few things.

What kind of college will offer the right fit in terms of the support you might want as a student of color? Do you want to attend a minority-serving institution such as a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) or a tribal college? What factors should you consider if you want to attend a predominantly white institution?

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What is a minority-serving institution?

Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) institutions are colleges and universities whose missions serve students from minority backgrounds. A number of MSIs exist in the US, including 102 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and 37 Tribal College and Universities (TCUs). Hispanic students comprise at least 25% of all undergrads at Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs). The 274 HSIs enroll around 40% of all Hispanic-American students.

For Asian American, Native American, and Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions, at least 10% of undergraduates need to be Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander students. The AAPI community is one of the fastest growing populations in the U.S., estimated to double in size by 2050.

Research shows that MSIs play an important role in educating a large number of minority and low-income students. Not only do they celebrate students’ cultures, they are often more diverse, more affordable, offer more academic support for minority students, and have higher graduation rates.

Thinking about attending a Predominantly White Institution (PWI)?

“Through the obstacles I've faced as a minority at a predominantly white institution, I've gotten a chance to truly embrace my ethnicity and bond with other people of my race who have gone through similar experiences. Becoming involved with organizations on campus that cater to minority students has definitely provided a sense of inclusion that I would have otherwise struggled to feel. Being a part of the small percentage of African Americans in my university's student body has allowed me to not only form genuine friendships, but has also helped me learn more about myself.”

- Kristen Adaway, University of Georgia

“Creating a relationship with my favorite professor in the Lakota language course, who also taught the Introduction to Native history course, motivated and inspired me to learn while giving me the confidence to stay in college, despite the challenges. Embracing my Native identity was the key to complete my first year of college and will continue to help me navigate other challenges I may experience. My advice to all of the young, strong, and resilient Native students who will be pursuing higher education is to embrace and appreciate your identity, culture, and heritage. Find the resources available to you, and do not be afraid to speak up for the things you know are right.”

- Foster Cournoyer Hogan (Rosebud Sioux Tribe), Stanford University

If your home community’s majority population is comprised of ethnic or racial minorities, you may want to consider a few things when looking at PWIs. A PWI can be a real culture shock with regard to seeing significantly fewer people who look like those in your home community. While this change is significant, it may not be a reason to completely write off a PWI.

Some questions to ask about a Primarily White Institution:

  • Do they have explicit plans and missions regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion?

  • Do they offer cultural resource centers, such as a diversity office or center for students of color? These centers can provide some respite from the challenges a minority in a predominantly white community might face.

  • Does their counseling center employ counselors of color? Do they offer in-person or remote emotional support? Do they offer group sessions?

  • Does the school employ faculty and staff of color? Are these people visible on campus and available as resources?

  • Does the student body lead any ethnic and cultural affinity organizations where you can find support and kinship?

  • Does the college’s admission process account for race?

Ultimately, you have to decide whether a PWI feels like a comfortable fit.

Prejudice, privilege, and microaggressions can (and likely do) still exist at schools that dedicate resources to equity and inclusion. However, these resources do signal that a school is working toward a more inclusive culture; it suggests that they recognize--and are trying to alleviate--the burden students of color face to represent their race when addressing institutionalized racism.

Asking about an institution’s diversity and inclusion initiatives and affirmative action policies or even reaching out to the professionals in these roles can provide you and your family some solace to the type of support and overarching initiatives being led to ensure a positive experience for you at a PWI of interest in your college selection process.

Your regional admission officer should have some sense of this work or at minimum be able to connect you to the person to best answer these questions. Don’t be afraid to reach out to other students that come from your community to ask about their experience at a college or university you are interested in.


Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)

What Unique Perspectives and Experiences Does A Historically Black College or University Offer?

A Brief History of HBCUs

The first HBCU, now called Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, was founded in 1837 to train teachers of African descent. Cheyney is now just one of roughly 100 HBCUs in the U.S. Many were founded post-Civil War to allow African Americans access to higher education, which they had previously been denied. They’ve defined one of the cores of African American achievement in U.S. history, cultivating leaders and visionaries like W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells, Booker T. Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Fast forward 150 years and many students may wonder, how are HBCUs still relevant today? Glad you asked! HBCUs comprise 3 percent of America's institutions of higher education, but enroll 16 percent of all African-American students and award almost a quarter of all bachelor’s degrees earned by black students.

Read more about the impact of HBCUs and how to support them here.

Why You Should Consider an HBCU

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  • Diversity: HBCUs offer a deep dive into diversity within the black diaspora. Yes, the majority of the students are black, but students from a wide range of socioeconomic, religious, and family backgrounds hail from all over the nation and world. Being part of a community like this can expand your idea of what it means to be black.

  • History: Many HBCUs were founded by former slaves or with the help of former slaves. To walk on the grounds that many of those people built with their hands gives a true sense of appreciation of where black people have been-- and where they’re going.

  • Sense of belonging: HBCUs provide a space where the majority of students and teachers look like you. Attending an institution you know was built for you and that tailors experiences to black students can give you an incomparable sense of belonging.

  • Family-oriented: Cliché, right? Hear us out. Going to an HBCU will foster some of the strongest relationships you could ever imagine. Some of the ways people grow their sense of pride and forge family bonds with their HBCU classmates are: attending cafeteria themed days like ‘Fried Chicken Wednesday’, ‘Soul Food Thursday’, or ‘Fish Friday’; joining Black Greek-Letter Organizations, which were created by black people to build social access like the fraternal organizations do which denied them membership; and participating in many other activities, like football games and band.

These are just some of the unique elements of the Historically Black College/University experience.

We have to emphasize the word experience. It is truly that. Beyoncé’s Coachella performance (and her concert film, Homecoming, about that performance) has increased the visibility of the HBCU experience. Her performance showcases many of the cultural assets belonging to HBCUs, though not all were included. By highlighting even a portion of the HBCU experience, however, many people took away a powerful message: the HBCU experience is black and beautiful, and one worth experiencing for yourself.

Take it from Queen B, who said herself: “I grew up in Houston, Texas visiting Prairie View, we rehearsed at Texas Southern University for many years in third ward and I always dreamed of going to an HBCU.”

Ultimately, you have to decide what experience works best for you, but the multi-layered HBCU option is worth exploring because you can gain a unique experience that fosters an understanding of and appreciation for who black people are.

Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs)

What Unique Perspectives and Experiences Does A Tribal College or University Offer?

Nikki Pitre, a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe who has dedicated her career to helping Native American students succeed in education, says many Native American students who struggled at a large university due to an absent sense of belonging were later successful at tribal colleges. “Tribal colleges are culturally immersive and cater to a young person's mind, body and spirit. There is a stronger sense of belonging and a core sense of identity that you're able to really hone in on at a tribal college--and that you’re not going to get at a mainstream university.”

A Brief History of Tribal Colleges and Universities

Tribal colleges were created by Native American tribes to address the fact that the U.S. government failed to include Indian education within the traditional public higher education system.

They chartered and created their own colleges, which are now fully accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. Most are tribally chartered, meaning they are created and approved by tribal councils, they are located on Native American reservations, and they operate many programs relevant to the local community. The 37 that currently operate in the U.S. offer certificates and degrees ranging from associate’s degrees to graduate degrees.

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Why You Should Consider a Tribal College or University

  • Tribal colleges offer a smaller student-teacher ratio, greater support for students who have children, and the opportunity to study in your native languages.

  • Many also have partnerships with four-year public universities that allow students to transfer, earn dual credit, or collaborate on research.

  • Students attending tribal colleges and universities are eligible to receive federal financial aid, including Pell grants.

“There are a lot of accommodations for students,” says Pitre. “That personal touch they receive regardless of their financial background, regardless if they're Native or non-Native--you just don't get at any other institution of higher education.”

Questions for Native American Students to Ask About Non-Tribal Institutions

The American Indian College Fund published a guide, Native Pathways, for Native American students thinking about applying to college. It is amazing. The authors include a list of several questions to think about:

  • Does the college have a Native American resource center?

  • How many Native American students attend this school? How many do they admit per year?

  • Do they employ Native faculty and staff?

  • How does the college support or engage with local tribes or Native organizations?

  • Do they recognize the tribal land they are located on?

  • Can I smudge on campus?

  • Does the college provide opportunities for me to give back to Native communities?

  • Do they provide specific funding for Native American students?

More Resources for Native American Students

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Check out the American Indian College Fund’s (AICF) website for a map of all 37 tribal colleges and universities in the United States. AICF provides information about scholarship and transfer pathways. The American Indian Higher Education Consortium also lists resources for Native American students on its website.

Finally, check out the non-profit organization College Horizons. They “[support] the higher education of Native American students by providing college and graduate admissions workshops to American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian students/participants from across the nation.”


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