Reinventing the Urban HBCU
Paul Quinn College president Michael Sorrell broke tradition to ensure his students’ future
Paul Quinn College was founded in 1872 by African Methodist ministers to educate freed slaves and their children. In 1965, it was accredited as one of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities. But when Michael Sorrell arrived as Paul Quinn’s president in 2007, the school was on the cusp of failing.
“When I started, we had a one percent graduation rate,” Sorrell tells The Elective. “I still can’t wrap my mind around that. We knew we had to rethink everything if we were going to survive.” Sorrell drastically cut costs and tuition, changed how students are recruited, recalibrated the academic calendar, and remade the school into a work college, adapting the school’s model to its urban South Dallas setting and helping nearly all of its students gain hands-on job experience.
Today, Paul Quinn is a national model for how to serve low-income and first-generation Black and Latino students, automatically admitting any student with a 3.0 GPA and eligibility for federal Pell Grants. “The students we’re serving at Paul Quinn are not the students higher education was designed to serve,” Sorrell said. “So we know we have to do things differently here.”
Sorrell’s experience at Paul Quinn holds important lessons for other higher education institutions. He recently spoke with The Elective about how the school has evolved over the last 15 years and what higher education needs to learn about welcoming a much more diverse cohort of students.
The word “innovation” gets tossed around a lot, especially in higher education. But you’ve really ripped up the traditional model at Paul Quinn. What’s behind the change and experimentation?
I think all of higher education is too in love with tradition. We are absolutely in love with the notion of how things used to be, how we’ve always done it. And we use the comfort of the status quo as an excuse for not doing the things we need for the students we have now.
Our students, the ones coming to us today, were never who higher education was designed to serve. And I mean all across higher education, all across the country. If you look around, and you realize the majority of American public-school students are coming out of low-income backgrounds, of Black and Latino communities, are the first in their families to go to college—that’s just not who our institutions were designed to serve. None of our structures and services were built with that population of students in mind. How, then, do you justify the decisions we’ve made across higher education to keep doing things the way we’ve always done it? To keep adhering to systems that don’t work for the people we’re serving now?
The first thing I did when I came to Paul Quinn was listen to my students. All of our innovations have come because I sat with students and asked them what they needed, what was important to them. Students said they can’t afford school, they’re not getting very good jobs, that they can’t support their families and be in school at the same time. So we knew we had to rethink the model completely.
The first big change, and the one that really cemented Paul Quinn as a leader, was to become a work college. What does it mean to be a work college in South Dallas?
We heard all of these deep concerns about cost, so I knew that was the most important thing to solve. And I said to my students, “Listen, I think I can make this cheaper. But we’re going to have to become a work college. I need you all to help with the lift. We’re not going to have climbing walls or a football team or all these other things you see in college brochures. But we’re going to become a really close-knit community, and I’m going to need you to help with things that college students don’t traditionally help with.”
I wrote my dissertation on Berea College, in rural Kentucky, which is kind of the national model for work. But I knew I couldn’t make this work at Paul Quinn selling pottery or raising cattle like they do at Berea—I was not going to be able to sell that to these kids from the city! But I can sell internships.
So we created the urban work-college model. Our students help run the campus, with all the traditional work-study jobs. But they also get paid internships off campus with our corporate partners, earning like $10,000 or $15,000. So not only is school paid for, but you’ve got an internship and an opportunity to put some money in your pocket.
We wanted everyone to get hands-on experience with the kind of work that will get them a job when they graduate.
Paul Quinn has a unique admissions model, where you offer automatic admission not just to hundreds of students in the local school district but also to their families. Students can choose two family members or friends to enroll alongside them. What led you to that policy?
The idea is this: It takes a village to raise a kid, and the students we serve often depend heavily on their extended families. Black and Latino students come from very family-oriented communities, and we wanted a way for them to bring that support network to school.
One of the most insidious things we do in higher education is say to first-generation and Pell Grant students that they must be the heroes of their own stories, that they must lift not only themselves out of poverty but everyone else in their families. That’s such an enormous amount of pressure to ask these students to be the one shot, the one hope for their families. We don’t ask affluent students or middle-class students to lift up their whole families, but we put that weight on the backs of low-income students all the time. We ask the students that are the most fragile to do the heaviest lifting.
We saw so many students who, because the margins in their lives were so slim, their families kept calling on them, kept putting the pressure on, and it’s just heartbreaking. These students had to make such hard choices about helping people succeed today versus maximizing their chances for tomorrow. You can't have both feet in both worlds, but that’s what we ask them to do.
So we asked, “Why don’t we defuse the pressure and allow more people to participate in the process?” When we invite those family networks in, we put the student in the best position to succeed. Instead of giving you a fish, we’re going to teach everybody to fish.
You didn’t follow the traditional path to a college presidency. You studied law and public policy, worked for a big law firm, served in the Clinton Administration, you considered buying an ownership stake in a basketball team. Remaking a struggling college was an unexpected career turn, and now you’re the longest-serving leader in Paul Quinn’s history. What advice do you have for students looking to follow in your footsteps, to find a fulfilling a role in the world?
It’s about finding places that believe in you. When I went to college, I had a general idea of the type of person I wanted to be and places I wanted to go. But it’s the kindness and vision and understanding of your mentors that really shapes the direction you take.
I think you need people to look up to. The whole reason I went to law school was because I idolized Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston, the way they took the law and bent it to serve people it was never intended to serve. I wanted to do that, to live my life in a way that I could fight for those who can’t fight for themselves.
So you need that vision—but be open about how you’re going to get there. The early part of my career was very much spent doing things that were interesting, looking for guidance and mentors, really just trying not to be lost. I never imagined I’d be in this role, but it has been the privilege of my life.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.