An Online HBCU Degree?

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I’m not a huge fan of for-profit higher education nor online education. I am somewhat traditional about the dissemination of knowledge. I’m guessing that I’m like this because it worked well for me and I love teaching in the classroom—I get a high from interacting with students regardless of their age. And OK, I also teach at an institution that has been around for quite some time!

Last week, The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story about Tom Joyner’s new effort to help HBCU’s start online education programs. Joyner has a terrific reputation in the HBCU community; he not only attended Tuskegee, but he has given millions of dollars to HBCU’s—and, more than that, he has highlighted HBCUs on his radio show. He shines a spotlight on the accomplishments of HBCU’s weekly. Not too long ago, Joyner talked about the trend of African-Americans attending for-profit institutions (especially the University of Phoenix) on his radio show. He wondered why HBCU’s couldn’t offer the same conveniences that for-profits did, but with more academic rigor and a historic foundation on which to base the degree.

When I first heard this discussion on Joyner’s radio show, I was uneasy. I wondered how the HBCU experience could be replicated in an online program. However, after months of thinking about this topic and digging around for research on African-Americans and online programs, I would much rather see HBCU’s offer online degrees to African-American students than to have them attend for-profit instititons that have little expertise in educating African-Americans. I worry about the low graduation rates, high loan-default rates, and immense debt accumulated by African-Americans who attend for-profit institutions (see data from the National Center for Educational Statistics). This is not to say that some HBCU’s don’t have their own problems in this area. And I do acknowledge the success that some for-profits have had with African-American students.

If Joyner can create a sound program that is easily adaptable to the HBCU environment and is built upon the traditions and ethos of an HBCU education, I think he may be on to what many struggling (and some not-so-struggling) HBCU’s need. With online programming, HBCU’s could attract students who crave flexibility and increase their enrollments. The key to success will be to offer degree programs for which there is a clear market and readily available jobs. In addition, Joyner and the HBCU’s will have to advertise the online programs in nontraditional ways—much like for-profit institutions do. Advertising at bus stops, in grocery stores, in shopping malls, on the Internet, and on television is a staple of for-profit education, and it works with nontraditional students and adult learners who crave flexibility and convenience.

The biggest strength that Joyner has going for him is his reputation. He is highly respected among African-American communities as well as among white business communities. He has a brand that has been successful. Hopefully, he can bring this success to the online education community and enhance the livelihood of HBCU’s across the nation. 

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