Conveying the Black College Experience into Distance Learning

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by Marlon Walker

There are 6.3 million African-Americans over 25 with some college or an associate degree, and 700,000 set out each year to complete their undergraduate degree. That’s what the executives at Tom Joyner Online Education LLC call a significant “degree completion” audience.

It’s a market, executives say, HBCUs should dominate but have ceded to predominantly online institutions like the University of Phoenix, which has the largest Black student enrollment of any U.S. institution and is the number one producer of bachelor’s degrees awarded to African-Americans.

Launched by radio personality and longtime HBCU booster Tom Joyner, HBCUsOnline is one of two new enterprises — the other an online university being developed by a former Radio One executive for for-profit Latimer Education — seeking to tap into the lucrative online adult higher education market. In addition, Dr. Benjamin Chavis, president of Education Online Services Corporation, has partnered with the National Association For Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) to build online degree programs at member schools.

The mission of Joyner’s for-profit educational services company is to help HBCU partners increase their market share, enrollment and revenue through marketing to Joyner’s morning show audience — 8 million listeners — and to provide other technical assistance to help them offer degree programs online. 

Hampton and Texas Southern universities were the first to sign on with HBCUsOnline, which will launch in January. Hampton already has an extensive online program.

Neil Foote, spokesman for HBCUsOnline.com, says Joyner watched as African-Americans turned to the online-education model to fit in with their busy schedules but became unhappy with the results.

“That got Tom thinking: ‘Why should Blacks go to these ‘new schools’ when Black colleges have been around here for decades educating many of the nation’s Black doctors, lawyers, engineers and teachers?’” Foote says.

Joyner’s and the other programs couldn’t come at a more opportune time, as experts suggest situational variables are pushing more Blacks online as they pursue postsecondary education.

“For-profit institutions provide students with flexible class schedules in order to help them complete their education quickly and without much interruption to competing commitments,” says Dr. Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Washington-based Institute for Higher Education Policy. “These seem to be factors important to many Black students, especially those who are first-generation students and who come from low-income backgrounds. Unfortunately, most traditional two- and four-year institutions are limited in offering students the same choices.”

A number of students who enroll in college right after high school end up finishing many years later, leaving for some reason or another, then re-enrolling a few years later.

A 2002 report by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 73 percent of all undergraduates were nontraditional students, defined as those not attending college right out of high school or working while attending. Among those, 81 percent were Black.

How It Will Work

HBCUsOnline primarily connects prospective adult students with HBCUs offering online classes, although Joyner’s company promises to not only bring students in through extensive marketing efforts but to see them through to graduation.

Greg Campbell, CEO of Tom Joyner Online Education, gave a detailed overview of HBCUsOnline at a seminar for HBCUs seeking to go online hosted by Excelsior College this past summer. The company promises to assume some of the risks that keep HBCUs from joining the online education revolution. Its Program Development services, for instance, can help institutions fill gaps in their online offerings or accelerate new programs by “sourcing that content … building it ourselves to your standards or acquiring it through a third party,” according to his presentation materials. Services include an HBCUsOnline Call Center, which will work with prospective students to identify the HBCU program that best suits their needs and help them complete their admissions application to each school.

HBCUsOnline.com expects to differentiate itself with its “Student Support Plus,” which offers assistance to students “from registration to graduation.”

“What makes Black colleges so unique is that they offer students a nurturing, comfortable and confidence-building  atmosphere for them to learn, grow and become successful,” Foote says. “That is absolutely the spirit with which we’re moving forward with HBCUsOnline.”

Through the Student Support program, each student will be assigned a “student advocate who has an education or counseling background and has worked in a customer care environment,” according to Campbell’s presentation. While the advocate won’t provide academic advising or tutoring, they will be charged with creating “A Blueprint for Student Success,” which includes an assessment of the student’s learning preferences and an individualized “success plan.”

Tom Joyner Online Education is investing $7 million initially. It’s unclear if the schools are paying Joyner’s company directly or if it generates money from each prospect-turned-enrolled-student who signs up at HBCUsOnline.com.

“It will generate revenue based on fees negotiated with each college,” says Foote, who would not elaborate on the contracts with each school.

HBCUsOnline.com is expected to compete for Black students with schools such as the University of Phoenix — where Blacks represent 39 percent of enrollment — as well as nontraditional universities such as Strayer and DeVry.

While noting concerns about the value of degrees from for-profit institutions, Dr. Marybeth Gasman, an associate professor in the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania, says there is something traditional higher education can learn from these companies. She says traditional institutions may need to implement the advertising tactics used by for-profit institutions, which have become more hip in attracting students.

Cooper agrees. As the unemployment rate remains high and people prepare for the possibility of carving out new careers, for-profit institutions are rolling out the red carpet to help with the transition.

“We are not endorsing for-profit institutions over traditional colleges and universities,” Cooper says. “However, it would be unwise not to take note of for-profit institutions, as they continue to be incredibly effective in reaching out to minority and low-income students. The message (from for-profit institutions) is simple: ‘We understand you have a busy lifestyle with little time to spare, so we’ve created flexible class schedules to meet your needs and help you graduate with a college degree … quickly.’

“Now, who wouldn’t buy into that kind of message?

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