• September 1, 2015

Tom Joyner Venture Will Help Black Colleges Start Online Programs

Tom Joyner Venture Will Help Black Colleges Start Online Programs 1

Donna McWilliam, AP Photo

A company started by the radio host Tom Joyner is attempting to bring to online education the supportive atmosphere found on historically black campuses.

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close Tom Joyner Venture Will Help Black Colleges Start Online Programs 1

Donna McWilliam, AP Photo

A company started by the radio host Tom Joyner is attempting to bring to online education the supportive atmosphere found on historically black campuses.

Tom Joyner, one of the country's most-visible philanthropic supporters of historically black colleges and universities, has founded a company to help those institutions develop distance-education programs—with a particular focus on allowing them to compete against for-profit colleges in enrolling minority students.

Mr. Joyner regularly highlights black colleges on his nationally syndicated radio broadcast, The Tom Joyner Morning Show, and has donated tens of millions of dollars to students of HBCU's through his Tom Joyner Foundation.

For-profit and online colleges attract "incredible numbers of African-American students" said Mr. Joyner's son, Thomas Jr., who stepped down as president of the foundation to become president of the new company, HBCUsOnline. "A lot of those enrollments are his listeners," the younger Mr. Joyner said in an interview on Thursday, and he believes many of those potential students would be better served by HBCU's, which have "a stronger legacy and history."

On its Web site, the company promises to provide an online version of the supportive environment that HBCU's try to foster on their campuses, and it makes some oblique and not-so-oblique references to criticisms that have been raised recently about the costs and recruiting tactics of for-profit colleges. "This program goes beyond simply enrolling you in classes and saddling you with debt, but offers you ongoing support systems from registration to graduation," the site proclaims.

In other sections, the site links to a Frontline documentary, "College Inc.," that criticized for-profit colleges, and warns, "Your investment in your online education is a serious decision. Don't be pressured into the wrong choice."

About 43 percent of the students at for-profit colleges are members of minority groups, and the University of Phoenix now leads all institutions in the number of bachelor's degrees awarded to African-Americans.

The target market for HBCUsOnline is adult African-American students, the younger Mr. Joyner said, adding that the market research the company has conducted indicates that many would be interested in attending an online college that has a brick-and-mortar campus and "a known history and heritage."

Asked about HBCUsOnline's portrayal of for-profit colleges, Harris N. Miller, president of the Career College Association, did not respond directly, saying only, "We welcome anyone who's going to bring more capacity to the higher-education system."

A Growing Field

Distance-education outsourcers are not new, and HBCUsOnline is hardly the only company looking to tap the HBCU market. Another venture, Education Online Services, led by the civil-rights activist Benjamin F Chavis Jr., is already working with some black colleges and is in discussions with the umbrella group for black colleges, the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, about forming a network of HBCU's online. The two-year-old company is a subsidiary of Marketlinkx Direct, an online marketing firm that works with hundreds of for-profit and nonprofit colleges.

A former high-ranking official in the Department of Education during the Bush Administration, Brian W. Jones, has also raised some venture-capital financing to form another company with a similar focus.

But the senior Mr. Joyner's entry into the arena, details of which will be released later this month in conjunction with a White House conference on HBCU's, has the potential to significantly alter the landscape. Along with his radio show, Reach Media, Mr. Joyner's company, includes the news and entertainment Web site BlackAmericaWeb, and puts on events and public-service programs which together reach millions of African-Americans and others.

HBCUsOnline plans to begin operations in January. Two of its top executives formerly worked for an outsourcing company called Higher Ed Holdings, including the chief academic officer, Gerald A. Heeger, who once ran online education for the University of Maryland University College.

Florida A&M University has already announced that it will participate in the venture and will initially offer online master's degrees in nursing, business, and pharmacy.

Mr. Chavis, whose company has already helped Morris Brown College establish its first online degree program, is working with Jackson State University on a program in early education that will begin later in September and has deals in the works with several more institutions. He said he's not fazed by the potential competition from the Joyner venture. "Our company wants the best for HBCU's," he said, and "there's a lot of room in the marketplace."

Worries About Execution

Not all the buzz around Mr. Joyner's venture has been glowing. Jarrett L. Carter Sr., executive director of the Center for HBCU Media Advocacy, recently warned in a blog post of the challenges the company will face in trying to replicate the HBCU experience in an online environment, and the financial challenges the institutions themselves will face in maintaining the support systems necessary for the programs to succeed. "Our historically black colleges and universities can't afford another 'great idea' song and dance with a 'poorly executed' record-scratched ending," he wrote.

Mr. Carter, who has worked for black colleges, said in an interview that he voiced the concern to be constructive. What he knows about the venture comes from the public hints Tom Joyner has provided over the past few months on his Web site and in some public appearances. (The younger Mr. Joyner's interview with The Chronicle was the first extensive discussion of the venture the company has given.)

"People already have trust in his brand," Mr. Carter said, but for many HBCU's, this is "a delicate time" financially and politically," so it's important that HBCUsOnline's plans are realistic. "This is a lot different from soliciting support for scholarships," said Mr. Carter. The HBCU's have a tradition, too, and companies like HBCUsOnline "have to be very careful that brand is not betrayed."

Mr. Joyner Jr., who, like his father, attended an HBCU (he went to Howard University, his father to Tuskegee) said he was aware of Mr. Carter's comments.

He said the company will use such techniques as social media, chat rooms, and live events to bring elements of black-college culture to online students. The company's plans for personalized counseling, which will begin when a prospective student inquires and carries through until they graduate, is also designed to help nurture students.

"We want to make them a living, breathing part of the tradition and heritage-rich HBCU," Mr. Joyner Jr. said.

Although both the company and the foundation will be active in the world of HBCU's, and Thomas Joyner Sr. is chairman of the company, Mr. Joyner Jr. said decisions about philanthropic support going to HBCU's would be separate from the company's business interest. He said he had no intent to "squander" his father's good reputation for short-term business gains.

As more and more HBCU's look to distance education via Mr. Joyner's company, Education Online Services, and other companies, officials at the black-colleges' association say one of the key challenges is to ensure that they can translate essential elements of the HBCU experience, particularly the student-support services for which the colleges are known, to an online environment.

The association is now working with online education experts from Carnegie Mellon University on a study that will focus on the issue.

"We do want to play in that space," said Lezli Baskerville, president of the association. But "we want to roll it out right, and we want to roll it out mindful of the lessons learned." Many colleges falter in online education if they lack adequate support systems for students,

As do the companies, she recognizes the potential for HBCU's in distance education. If you have friends or family who attended an HBCU, "you are aware of the rich traditions, and you'll want the same degree," the alumni connections, and some of the other benefits, she said. The challenge is "how do you capture the essence of that culture and the engagement online."


1. gloriawalker - September 03, 2010 at 07:52 am


2. dsmith79 - September 03, 2010 at 10:36 am

Having worked in an online environment for several years, I believe the question should not be about replicating the “rich traditions of HBCU's” but ensuring that academic rigor and integrity are in place in these online degrees. Students who seek online degrees do so because of the flexibility they afford. They are not necessarily interested in typical brick and mortar activities such as social events and socializing. Since most of the enrollees will be adults, what they will need is strong academic advising and counseling as well as institutional support that would move them seamlessly through academic levels until graduation.

3. signaledu - September 03, 2010 at 11:46 am

I'm sorry, I'm not entirely clear here. Is HBCUsOnline intended to be run for profit? And won't the HBCU Title IV taxpayer subsidies be then fueling shareholder profit, executive compensation et. al?

I suppose this profit will be well-deserved though because it will not be made simply from the exploitation of racial identity and long-revered brands but rather from a program that "goes beyond simply enrolling you in classes and saddling you with debt, but offers you ongoing support systems from registration to graduation."

What a brilliant innovation. Good luck with that.

Trace Urdan
Signal Hill

4. andriahaley - September 03, 2010 at 01:23 pm

This is absolutely wonderful. If you know anything about for-profit institutions many of them prey on those who are considered to be at-risk students (i.e. minority, low-SES, single parent home, from low performing school districts and dilapidating communities, non-traditional students). Unfortunately, many for-profit institutions employ predatory “sales” practices to lure unconfident, confused, and ill prepared (emotionally and academically) prospective students. The tuition is extremely high ranging from $495 -$600 per credit hour. Many of these student utilize more than one financial aid resource (many of them private loans with interest rates as high as 16.99%) to finance the cost of their education. Many of these students depart prematurely from the institution because their live situation may not be accommodating to them attending school (working several jobs, caring for relatives, poor parental monitoring or assistance). Then they are left with outstanding debt and most likely unemployed and if so at best may be earning $9/hr. I know of someone who graduated from a for-profit his monthly educational loan payment is over $750. He makes 36K per year and he only has an associates. You do the math.

We need institutions that offer online programs that are just as rigorous as in resident programs. Most reputable institutions only operate with integrity and I am certain their online programs would follow suit. Research suggests that many students who are not completing their degree program is often time highly influenced by the cost of tuition and the fear of not being able to comfortably repay the loans. It is a real concern. We need affordable education! We need to focus on college access and retention more than ever, NOW!

5. chicago_48 - September 03, 2010 at 03:43 pm

Andriahhaley, can you be specific " many of them prey on those who are considered to be at-risk students (i.e. minority, low-SES, single parent home, from low performing school districts and dilapidating communities, non-traditional students)."

Online colleges do very well for students who live distances from urban cities and have no local universities/colleges. That's the purpose of online (distance education) and it's nothing new, distance education has been ongoing for decades; first started with correspondence schools.

perhaps you mean the for-profits that are "career/vocational"? that teach the medical training programs? That's different than universities and colleges and esp. different that the ones that attract the grad student. (Capella, EDMC, et al)

I think it's unfair to put all "for profits" in the same basket. You need to separate them from vocational training (9 to 12 months) to colleges, to universities. I work with some very intelligent hard working people who graduated from U of Phoenix and Devry. Devry is one of the oldest most respected universities in the U.S., and was instrumental in graduating IT specialists during the tech boom.

6. chicago_48 - September 03, 2010 at 03:45 pm

the problems I see with Joyner's initiative is this: He's going to have to go after the "monied" "employed" black professional. They're the ones that are in a position to get grants, financial aid, or pay outright for their classes. If he goes after the poor, "lowly educated" high school grad going into freshman year, no job, etc. then his initiative is going to lose money. Too many black, poor, minority students already are in debt to student aid and cannot transfer to another school. Their debt is restricting them.

7. lions - September 03, 2010 at 04:21 pm

DS Smiths79 comment, "... ensuring that academic rigor and integrity are in place in these online degrees. ..." is also my greatest concern. How will the college or university gain accreditation for these on-line programs that will allegedly be competitive with an off-line accredited program that is seeking to market its graduates in the same marketplace?? I envision a need for each college/university Board of Trustees (or equivalent) calling for a strong justification from its institutional leadership before approving this type of venture.

8. andriahaley - September 03, 2010 at 04:30 pm

chicago_48: Perhaps I am a little bias in my opinion. That is why it is my opinion only. I did clearly state for-profits in the very beginning. Please do not get me started on Devry and the University of Phoenix. Are you an administrator in Higher Ed? Are you aware of the issues that for-profits are facing? Are you aware of the illegal and unethical practices that the government has been investigating with these two schools alone? Are you aware of the fines and cases filed against U of Phoenix for their practices? Are you aware of the purpose of the new Bill concerning for-profits? Maybe you should research the issues around Docket ED-2010-OPE-0012?

And I am referring to just about all for-profits. What other reason are they under federal investigation for? Not everyone who attends these schools is “at-risks”. Never did I state that! But I will state they do rely on the enrollment for disadvantage demographic to secure federal funding (yes, they can get federal funding. Its call grants).

I could go on and on. I have done plenty of research on this topic alone. Including issues surrounding at-risk and non-traditional student populations, college access and retention and not to mention program completion rates. The intent of my research was not to discriminate against for-profits. It was to reveal this factors involves with minorities low matriculation, retention and degree completion rates and I discovered the world of issues with for-profit colleges.

9. softshellcrab - September 03, 2010 at 04:56 pm

Oh boy, the crud will be flowing now. (1) Online classes tend to be often silly and to hand out grades without care or any rigor whatsoever (2) For profit schools tend to be often silly and to hand out grades without care or any rigor whatsoever, (3) HBCU's tend to have low academic standards and to give grades with very little rigor and low standards.

SOME online classes are a LITTLE better than what I say, but the great majority are fake-school, and the faculty really don't know who is doing the work. I have taught online for side jobs, for a for-profit school. I also have seen firsthand the few online classes we offer where I am (almost everyone gets A's). I know what I see, and I have seen a bunch of really crappy classes where there was little learning and shockingly low grading standards. So gentle readers, please spare me the "recoiling in horror" at my comments. And there cannot be any real argument about for-profits or HBCU's being grade-handout machines. This has been well documented.

Hey, so now I know what to do: Let's combine all three into a kind of higher education cesspool of handing out passing grades like Halloweeen candy. Wheeee, the party has really started now. Students who get a diploma this way should be required to have it printed on toilet paper with a crayon.

10. debashishbramha - September 04, 2010 at 02:41 am

Absolutely great.

11. javant1969 - September 04, 2010 at 05:05 pm

Andriahaley: So,let's assume that the For-Profits never existed. How are these "disadvantage demographic" students who are interested in pursuing a degree to earn an education? The traditional higher education institutions totally ignored this set of students, hence creating a "market" for the online and on-ground programs that Devry UOP and others have "exploited". There is also a bias in higher education discourse against adult students in general and nontraditional delivery specifically. Rigor in a program is controlled by the faculty who are in general opposed to any innovations. I am not sure that you have contemplated the logical conclusion to your arguments.

12. scintillate - September 07, 2010 at 07:41 am

hello dsmtih
the article states "have ongoing support from admission to graduation". I am confident that someone who has invested much of his time and resources into HBCU's will ensure that one of the contingencies of his support is that these institutions employ credible faculty and support personnel.

13. jsullivan7 - September 07, 2010 at 10:21 am

I wonder who specifically Mr. Joiner is targeting in creating this opporunity. I also wonder if there will be any adjustments to HBCU admission policies in tapping into the non-traidional student market that UOPX and Devry tend to attract. In addition to the flexibilty and convenience factor, students find the open admission policy of for-profits very attractive. This factor alone will determine how much of an impact the venture will have considering its stated goals.

At some for-profits a student seeking a bachelors degree in business and who anticipates transferring 48 credits can call in on Monday of one week and start class Thursday of the next week. Many working adult students appreciate this quick turn around time as the companies they work for are demanding that they finish their degree in order to keep their job or get a promotion they are denied because they don't have a degree. I hope Mr. Joiner has researched well the nature of the online market place and the preferences of adult learners.

14. southbronx962 - September 07, 2010 at 11:54 am

HBCU Online Graduates Need an Employability Boosting International Edge Too. Students earning online HBCU degrees must have the same international edge as if they attended a SAGE Consortium member school. I wish them the best of luck because of their potential impact on the achievement gap, buy my concern is that thousands of students who cannot attend a bricks and mortar school will miss out on the global literacy and employability benefits of a postsecondary intercultural learning experience. Mr. Joyner should look into the work that www.iercef.org is doing with our nations HBCUs. By combining an international component to his on-line degree, this would put him well ahead and help these students gain employment.

15. gplm2000 - September 07, 2010 at 12:05 pm

Joyner's "rich traditions" are nothing more than a waste of time and money. The HBCUs were needed during segregation, but not in the 21st Century. Public HBCUs, such as Norfolk State and Virginia State, should be merged with Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth respectively. Their lax admissions and standards are not worth more taxpayer monies. Each has athletic teams which would be more appropriate with the mainstream schools. It is time to remove the yoke of racism from the black student. Get them away from the racist environment of separate but equal. It is not.

16. swjones828 - September 07, 2010 at 01:51 pm

I wish them the best of luck because of online's potential impact on the achievement gap, but my concern is that thousands of students who cannot attend a bricks and mortar school will miss out on the global literacy and employability benefits of the postsecondary intercultural learning experience offered via the new HBCU Study Abroad/Global Engagement (SAGE) Consortium such the one lauched in North Carolina this year. An online degree especially for appealing to African Americans must not be second-rate and have all the leading-edge content to improve their employability.

17. swjones828 - September 07, 2010 at 05:38 pm

HBCUs play a unique role. They offer a nurturing environment for students that often are unprepared for college, also these are smaller schools on average where the level of attention and mentoring is higher. This is the experience HBCUs offer making them different than an "Old Dominion" for example.

The challenge at-hand is increasing quickly, degree-attainment in America. National income relies on it. If HBCUs cater to a particular segment of our students and provides a higher education track for them to persue their degree and career, fine. If HBCUs are the prefered institution for say 30-40% of the otherwise one million "dropouts" that need to be rescued rather than left to their own devices, great our nation will be far better off for it. The issue is how prepared will they be to enter a global, flatter, society as successful professionals.

Is is not about saving money on the margin and short changing national investment, viewing higher education as a cost-center is wrong-headed. We must however make certain that the public investment made is delivers concrete benefits. I am not a fan of large athletic budgets given the academic challenges U.S. high education faces vis a vis the rest of the world not a good use of a scarce resource in the long-run, but good business at the local level I am sure.

Once first in the world in postsecondary attainment America now ranks 10th in the percent of people with a degree. That's not good in an information economy; any community of schools, such as HBCUs that appeal to and help individuals attain their degree who are otherwise predisposed to dropping out is a good thing if the standards are in tack. Which has been a week point for some HBCUs but throwing the baby out with the bath water is not the answer. We need more schools, not less, and one size doesn't fit all although it may be convenient if it did.

18. arrive2__net - September 09, 2010 at 01:05 am

Joyner seems to be trying to bring those with a need to offer online programs together with those who need the programs (and have resources or access to resources). He thinks he can do a more ethical and therefore better and more successful job. A good idea if he can make a go of it. It will be interesting to see how this idea plays out, it may be more difficult than it seems. Joyner may be be able to communicate with his demographic, but he needs to reach a particular segment who are net-saavy, looking for additional education, and not committed to or enamored by other schools. Will that demographic be attacted to the HBCU? How big will his venture have to grow to be successful? Time will tell.

Bernard Schuster

19. jmantey07 - September 13, 2010 at 12:20 pm

In my opinion, this is a bad idea. Looking at the systems currently in place for online education, I fear that there will be a lack of quality at the educational level, and we run the risk diluting any quality we have left. There are just some skills that cannot be taught adequately in an online format. College is more than just learning subject matter, but about learning to think critically, becoming a better team player, etc. As someone who's taken an online course at her UG HBCU, I know I personally didn't even feel engaged.

On another note, it seems like the main people that online institutions attract are those who did not excel in HS for whatever reason or who've been out of the school system for a very long time. I'm all for educating yourself, but those students need to be guided towards community/junior colleges instead of given easy access to a 4-yr degree. Yes, there may "pseudostructure" at current online institutions, but those students most likely need a lot more help than is available to catch up. Naively, online institution students will think they are able to do college level work, but unfortunately, what will really happen is A) they will flunk out and lose money or B) they will be passed along because a professor can't have 3/4 of his class failing. Either way, it is a disservice to those students as well as to others who are earning bachelors and masters at credible institutions. I think we need to fix our current educational issues before we plunge into the online realm. There are already clear issues with for-profit institutions that need to be resolved before HBCUs join that hot mess.

20. dblake862 - September 21, 2010 at 02:51 pm

I think it makes sense to help schools offer online classes! Online classes benefit everyone, and can be offered during times when students can't get to a school. I attended an Accredited Online High School, and i enjoyed it a lot.

21. psy2000 - September 24, 2010 at 03:29 pm

As an Educator at a State College, I think that this is a great idea for (2) reasons:

1. This may assist to close the digital divide.
2. This will allow those that can not afford to travel to the traditional college campus the opportunity to attend an HBCU of their choice and participate in campus activities if they wish.

I completed an MS program and PhD online and never regretted the choice rounding out a BA from an HBCU.

As an Army Veteran as well, this is especially great idea for those defending our freedom while studying for a degree.

This is a win-win!

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