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History of HBCU Nursing Programs

Written by: North Carolina Central University   •  Feb 5, 2024
Nursing student smiling in a health care facility.

The History of HBCU Nursing Programs

Diversity and inclusion are critical to the success of the American health care system, particularly where health equity is concerned. Historically Black colleges and universities (HCBUs) have played a vital role in the education and development of a diverse American nursing workforce, but a significant gap still exists. 

Modern HBCU nursing programs include baccalaureate, graduate, and doctorate programs designed to make American health care more diverse and equitable. An online Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN to BSN) degree program offers students the opportunity to further their education and propel their careers forward with a focus on leadership, communication, and cultural awareness. 

The First HBCUs

The Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965 contains the first use of the term “historically Black colleges and universities.” The HEA, which aimed to increase federal funding for all institutions of higher learning nationwide, defined HBCUs as colleges and universities founded specifically for Black students before 1964. However, the first HBCUs were created more than a century earlier.

Historically, young Black students may have been unable to attend colleges or universities due to racial discrimination and other societal barriers. Despite a great deal of reform, systemic racism is still a serious issue in the United States. HBCUs continue to provide quality education with a welcoming sense of community that empowers people of color. 

Timeline of HBCU Nursing Programs

Alabama’s Tuskegee University launched the nation’s first HBCU nursing program in 1892. The Tuskegee Normal School for Nurses offered aspiring Black nurses a two-year program that focused on caring for the sick. Tuskegee University was also the first American institution of higher learning to offer a BSN degree. In 1953, 14 Black women made history among the first-ever program graduates. 

Virginia’s Hampton University School of Nursing offered the first HBCU nursing programs to award graduate degrees. In 1976, the school introduced a master’s degree program, and in 1999, it became the first HBCU to offer a doctorate program. As of 2022, there are 102 HBCUs spread across 19 different states; the U.S. Virgin Islands; and Washington, D.C. Prospective nurses can choose from 32 HBCU nursing programs across the country that offer baccalaureate degrees or higher. 

The Significance of HBCUs in Health Care

Statistically speaking, racial inequalities continue to lead to severe health disparities, even when taking socioeconomic variables and demographics into account. What’s more, people of color are underrepresented among health care professions, negatively impacting outcomes among minorities. HBCU nursing programs are vital to filling these gaps through intercultural competence and perspective, which increases and promotes health equity. 

HBCUs and Better Health Outcomes

According to data from KFF, formerly the Kaiser Family Foundation, Black Americans have a significantly shorter life expectancy than white Americans and are nearly twice as likely to be uninsured. Black infants are more than two times more likely to die than white infants, and Black women experience some of the highest rates of mortality related to pregnancy in the country. 

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), research suggests that Black patients who have access to Black practitioners experience statistically lower infant mortality rates, higher satisfaction rates, a better understanding of risk factors, and even better adherence to health guidelines — all of which lead to better outcomes. Communities and ethnic groups that feel represented by their health care system are far more likely to take their practitioners’ advice to heart. 

HBCUs and Representation in Health Care Professions

Although people of color make up 42% of the population of the United States, they’re sorely underrepresented across all health care professions. Only 10.9% of health care practitioners are Black, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute. Most high-paying nursing professions require a BSN, but according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 34% of Black Americans have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared with 44% of white Americans. 

The underrepresentation is even more apparent in nursing professions, particularly among RNs. RNs comprise one of the largest segments of the American workforce, and roughly 80% identify as white. Of the 5.2 million RNs in the United States, only 6.3% identified as Black or African American as of 2022, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). 

Although the 2021-2022 National League for Nursing survey found that only 14.6% of nursing students enrolled in basic RN programs were Black, AACN’s 2021 enrollment and graduation survey found that Black students made up 74% of the total enrollees in baccalaureate programs offered by HBCUs. 

HBCU nursing programs provide diverse role models in nursing and leadership, and they empower students to advance their education and careers. These programs are central to helping the nursing profession overcome racial disparities and ensure health equity for all. 

Black Nurses and Nurse Leaders Are the Future of Health Care 

In February 2023, Isa J. Miles, a Black senior health communication specialist and behavioral specialist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who holds a Doctor of Science (DSc) and a Master of Surgery (MS), wrote about the important role of HBCUs in realizing the CDC’s mission to remove health disparities in America. Nearly 200 years after the first HBCU nursing program was founded in Alabama, the legacies of HBCUs and their graduates continue to promote equality and diversity in health care

Black nurses bring much-needed perspective, cultural awareness, and understanding to the nursing profession, and they’re critical for improving the delivery of care. The online RN to BSN degree program at North Carolina Central University empowers students to recognize their potential as nurses and leaders. Discover how you can make an impact as a nurse and an advocate for health equity. 

Recommended Readings

How to Measure Health Equity

RN Salary in NC: Job Description and Opportunities

School-Life Balance: Nursing Education and Obligations


American Association of Colleges of Nursing, Data Spotlight: Nursing Students Diversity and Enrollment and Graduation Trends in HBCUs

American Association of Colleges of Nursing, Nursing Workforce Fact Sheet

American Association of Medical Colleges, “Do Black Patients Fare Better with Black Doctors?”

American Nurse, “Black Americans in Nursing Education”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “A Black History Moment: HBCUs and Their Influence on CDC’s Health Equity Journey”

Economic Policy Institute, “Racial Representation in Professional Occupations”

IntelligentHQ, The Importance of Diversity in Nursing

Investopedia, “The Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA): Definition and Provisions”

Journal of Nursing Education, “Contributions of Historically Black Colleges and Universities to the Production of Black Nurses”

Journal of Professional Nursing, “Leadership in Nursing Science: Four Scholarly Journeys Rooted in Historically Black College and University Excellence”

KFF, “Key Data on Health and Health Care by Race and Ethnicity”

Minority Nurse, “Historically Black Nursing Schools: Yesterday and Today”

Minority Nurse, “Nation’s First HBCU Baccalaureate Nursing Program Celebrates 50th Year”

National League for Nursing, “NLN Releases New Survey Results of Nursing Schools and Programs Showing Persistent Challenges to Addressing the Nursing Shortage”

The Century Foundation, “The Role of HBCUs in Ensuring a Diverse Health Care Workforce”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Labor Force Characteristics by Race and Ethnicity, 2022

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