The height of the for-profit college boom, which began in 2004, came with a boom in black enrollment. According to the website Colorlines, the number of black students signing up at for-profits jumped 218% from 2004 to 2009, compared to just 46% for all students. By 2009, the for-profit University of Phoenix, a pioneer of online education, was the country’s largest educator of black bachelor’s degree students; the second largest was Ashford University, a for-profit that offers its classes exclusively online.
This rise affected another major educator of black students: Historically black colleges and universities. The five largest for-profit colleges, which deal almost entirely online, enrolled some 275,000 black students in 2013, out of a total of 877,000 enrollees. In the same year, the country’s 106 HBCUs enrolled 311,000 students.
Now, amidst a push by one of the largest benefactors of historically black colleges, the country’s HBCUs are beginning to figure out how they fit into an online space once dominated by for-profit colleges. They are struggling, too, with the question of what an online education at a black college looks like.
“Generally speaking, HBCUs, especially public HBCUs, are behind the curve on this one,” said Johnny Taylor, the president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which supports most of the country’s public HBCUs.
Taylor believes that building online programs is a matter of dire urgency, and even survival, for historically black schools. They need online programs to compete with majority-white institutions for the older, nontraditional students that tend to be attracted to online programs. And they need to be able serve the students they already have — many historically black schools, because of their size, cannot afford to offer niche classes like languages and high-level technical courses, both of which have done well as online programs.
The advantages of online degree programs — they can be cheaper, and fit more easily around family responsibilities and work schedules — makes them particularly appealing to the poor and minority students that historically black colleges were built with a mission of serving. But such colleges lag behind for-profit operators and many majority-white institutions when it comes to rolling out online degrees. Most are small and lack the endowment money or wealthy donors needed to make the big investments in technology and digital curriculum.
Taylor’s solution: turn to the University of Phoenix.
Last year, he created a program that links historically black colleges with the University of Phoenix’s online infrastructure, allowing the smaller schools to build their own online programs on the back of its technology platform, and let their students enroll in University of Phoenix online classes that their schools may not offer.
“There’s a lot of negative publicity around Phoenix,” Taylor said. “People have asked, why not go with another platform? Frankly, Phoenix was knocking at my door, and nobody else was.”
“You can’t argue that what they do hasn’t been tested a lot of times, by a lot of black people,” he said. “This is a very practical, very utilitarian line.”
But in the year since Taylor announced the program, the reaction from his constituents has been tepid. Just two of TMCF’s 47 schools, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University and the tiny Paul Quinn College, a private college with 500 students, have inked deals that amount to early tests of the partnership; Grambling and one other school are in the process of putting together agreements.
The University of Phoenix has “literally written the book on educating black students online,” said Janet Guyden, the provost of the HBCU Grambling State University in Louisiana. “Even their critics have to acknowledge that they’ve developed something in terms of raising the bar for African Americans who accomplish postsecondary education.”
But no schools, so far, have adopted anything close to the kind of sweeping plans that Taylor envisioned — plans that will allow them to offer fully-online degrees that compete with flagship universities and for-profits. Florida A&M’s deal involves only high school students.
“We’re not ready to jump both feet-first into the middle of the online pot,” said Guyden, Grambling’s provost. “We don’t see ourselves as an online university.”
The Phoenix partnership makes sense, Guyden said, because Grambling’s student base is changing — more and more of them are non-traditional, with families and jobs. More students, too, need remedial classes that eat up time and money. “We have students who need to be served outside of traditional classrooms, and so we realize, we do need to be able to offer high-quality courses online.”
For Paul Quinn College, a private HBCU that has 500 students — half of the enrollment it had in 2004 — the Phoenix partnership is part of a massive reinvention underway at the struggling school, which had been briefly stripped of its accreditation. Paul Quinn, which serves mostly poor students, has created an “urban college promise,” which involves work-study programs to enable drastic tuition cuts. The school’s president, Michael Sorrell, cut Paul Quinn’s football team — to much uproar — and turned their field into an urban farm.
Sorrell plans, eventually, to use the Phoenix partnership to allow students who have dropped out to come back and complete their degrees with online classes, and current students who are lagging behind to fill gaps in their class schedule and finish their degrees on time.
One of TMCF’s constituent schools, Jackson State University, is an example of the kind of online success that Taylor hopes to spread to many of the nation’s public HBCUs. The school has seen its enrollment jump 10% in just three years — the largest increase of any Mississippi public school, making JSU the country’s fourth-largest HBCU. Robert Blaine, the school’s dean of undergraduate studies and online learning, attributes that growth almost entirely to JSU’s digital initiative — but it’s an initiative that, Blaine cautions, that goes far beyond simply offering classes online.
As early as 2010, Blaine said, JSU was making tentative steps into a “digital transformation,” beginning to produce a single digital textbook. When the school saw “huge jumps” in learning, it began an initiative that almost no public college, white or black, has ever undergone — a “democratization of cyber learning” push that involved buying iPads for every single one of JSU’s incoming students.
“This was very, very uncommon in higher education,” Blaine said. “But we tried bring-your-own device, and it didn’t work for us.”
BYO didn’t work, Blaine said, because it created a rift between students who could afford their own computers and the many who couldn’t. Buying iPads for all students allowed JSU to push an entirely digital redesign of its curriculum, eliminating textbooks almost entirely and “pushing to end the lecture as the dominant form of transferring information.”
It was only in the midst of this digital transformation, Blaine said, that JSUOnline has been able to grow. Initially started with a profit-sharing agreement with a third-party, JSUOnline is now run entirely in-house, with its own course designers, directors and recruitment staff. It has seven degree programs that are entirely online; next year it will have 14.
“We’re at the point where we’re looking at online being the main engine of growth for the institution,” Blaine said. “We see online innovation as a necessity. When you don’t have a lot of money, you have to be very careful with what you have. It can move in one of two directions — it can either make you very conservative and hunker down, which is what some HBCUs have done, and they’re finding themselves to be less relevant. We’re trying to do the opposite — to innovate.”
The goal, Blaine said, is to eventually compete on the same scale as Arizona State University, which offers one of the country’s largest public online degree programs.
As JSU and others build out fully-online degree programs, they’ve begun to wrestle with the question of how to translate the offerings of a historically black college to the online sphere, where bonds among alumni and a sense of community are weak or nonexistent.
Taylor, at TMCF, said HBCUs shouldn’t worry about those questions. He believes they should compete on the basis of the programs they offer, rather than trying to replicate the experiences of on-campus young people for working adults. “If I want an online degree, I don’t need the homecoming and the band. I just want to go back to the workplace and improve my career. My degree could be from Georgetown, it could be from Phoenix — I just want the paper.”
But others disagree. Crystal DeGregory, a historian who studies HBCUs, believes black colleges need to figure out how to bring their real-world strengths online, rather than trying to compete with offerings similar to primarily-white institutions.
“The strength of an HBCU experience has been a sense of belonging,” said DeGregory. “There’s a lot of social capital that comes with a campus experience at an HBCU — it’s what our students come in without, and we give it to them.” If HBCUs are going to figure out how to use online learning, DeGregory says, “It’s critical that we figure out out how to sell the relationship component.”
Molly Hensley-Clancy is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. She covers the intersection of business and education.
Contact Molly Hensley-Clancy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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