‘The great elevator up’: 3 HBCU presidents discuss the need to lift students

Morehouse, Dillard and Paul Quinn leaders say investments need to be made in colleges that truly make a difference.

What is the biggest problem inhibiting student success in higher education? Michael Sorrell, President of Paul Quinn College in Texas, says it could be poverty.

“The majority of students coming out of public K-12 education in this country are coming from low-income and poverty-level backgrounds,” he says. “That means that the American educational system is now defined by poverty. Everything is a struggle.”

For students who attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities, that struggle is even more pronounced, not just the inequities between certain institutions but those that exist in their own neighborhoods, where income levels and resources remain low. Inflation may be the dagger that prevents some of them from rising or advancing through postsecondary education. It is an issue that only national policy might solve. But leaders said entities other than HBCUs—the foundation for advancement for many Black students—must do more to help.

“The trauma has to be addressed,” Sorrell says. “We keep putting Band-Aids on fissures. We talk about issues with not having broadband, with not having laptops. But if you can’t afford to pay your electricity bill, it doesn’t matter. We’re going to have to speak to these issues in a very concrete way. HBCUs are administering to communities that start out in places where students are struggling and their families are struggling. That’s not just an HBCU issue. That’s now an American issue.”

Sorrell and two other esteemed HBCU presidents—Walter Kimbrough at Dillard University and David Thomas at Morehouse College—joined Ellucian CEO Laura Ipsen at the ASU-GSV Summit for a discussion on “HBCUs at the Leading Edge,” highlighting the transformative work their institutions are doing to prepare students for the future while putting Band-Aids on challenges around issues such as mental health, social and racial injustice and finances.

“People three decades ago rightfully thought of themselves as middle class when it comes to affording a high-quality education. Now, most cannot afford it,” Thomas said. “In the African-American community, fewer than 3% of Black families could afford to pay the full sticker price of a Morehouse College education. It’s not just poverty, but income inequality. For leaders of historically Black colleges, we’ve stayed out of that conversation about national policy and state government policy. Is there an agenda that we need to work on as leaders of these institutions?”

Education an equalizer?

One of the main themes of the session was whether education was truly the great equalizer that could get under-resourced students to the same level as their counterparts. Sorrell says no. “Everyone doesn’t receive the same type of education. Even if they did, they don’t get to that education in the same way. If you are a student who works three jobs, your experience is going to be radically different from the student that doesn’t even have to do work-study. You may both have the same degree from the institution, but you will not have both had the same educational experience.”

Thomas believes it can be, but there are significant impediments still facing HBCU students. “Education is the great elevator up. It doesn’t guarantee that everybody has the same starting line. But it does have the capacity to move everyone beyond the linear projection of their starting point … assuming they’re not from privileged backgrounds. Historically black colleges and universities have done a great job of realizing the starting point of our students and accelerating that trajectory for them. Where they wind up is well beyond what we would predict.”

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But those resources and levels of care only stretch so far, especially when compared with highly selective private institutions, and that shouldn’t be the case, the three leaders said.

“We have a different level of calculus in terms of what we have to do,” Kimbrough said. “We’re not only dealing with the challenges of educating those students but dealing with all the wraparound services. HBCUs, we do the most with a little, and that’s got to change. We can cite statistics about how great we’re doing. At some point, we have to have a conversation to say, how can a sector keep producing like this, and we give them nothing to work with?”

At Dillard, 70% of all students are Pell Grant eligible or double the national average. Dealing with the impacts of hurricanes and the pandemic in New Orleans more profoundly, Kimbrough said as many as 60% of students may have been suffering from food insecurity, for example, in the past two years plus. Yet, being on the HBCU campus was still better than the alternative. Because of its smart allocation of resources, Kimbrough reiterated, “Some [students] said, I’m safer in New Orleans than at home in Chicago … having a place to stay and having guaranteed meals.”

Invest where it can make a difference

So how are HBCUs finding a way to beat the odds and provide these supports? Partners are essential. So is ingenuity.

“We created a program called the Village Program,” Sorrell said. “If you’re a Pell Grant student, with a 3.0 or better, you are automatically admitted to Paul Quinn, but you get to bring two of your family members and/or friends with you. You bring your village. You build a team. Let’s create depth in your family relationships in your community and touch more people. It’s amazing to see their families respond because it’s saying to some of them for the first time, ‘We believe in you, too.’”

Thomas said Morehouse is “investing our scarce resources in that student experience and aligning incentives to really be focused on students first and figuring out where they are. We are much better at using technology to bring them to where we want them to be by the time they cross the finish line.” But he knows what his students are up against. “When you go to many of those [elite] places, they look like country clubs, because those schools can afford a different level of investment in their physical infrastructure than you will find in Morehouse College, even though we can stand toe to toe with any university in the country in terms of what our students or alumni have gone on to do professionally and for the country.”

Dillard has seen enrollment rates jump by 10 points and graduation rates by 20% because of various initiatives in the past few years, but outside help is still necessary to continue those trends. That means giving institutions the capital they need, instead of giving it to those that already have it.

“We need to have a radical change in ideology about how we invest in this small subset of institutions that continuously performs above any others,” Kimbrough said. “We’ve got to have uncomfortable conversations. Philanthropy is going to be key, but it’s giving to the people who are really doing the heavy lifts. And stop celebrating every time Harvard gets another $400 million. ‘Oh, that’s great.’ No, it’s not. It’s horrible.”

Sorrell agreed. “How many times are we going to praise people for doing the absolute easiest thing they could do with their money? Then we want to hold them up as if they are amazing. You’re not amazing. Maybe you earned all that money yourself. But chances are, you were on third base and you scored. If you want to be amazing, do something amazing. Invest in a set of schools that are doing incredible work.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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