Expanding Footprints and Seeking New Markets

Some HBCU leaders are considering building satellite campuses to expand their reach and serve more Black students.

April 12, 2022
Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, speaks at the institution’s 150th anniversary celebration.
(Paul Quinn College)

Paul Quinn College president Michael Sorrell made a surprising announcement at a recent event to celebrate the college’s 150th anniversary: leaders of the private Dallas institution are considering creating a satellite campus in California, with hopes to add more campuses in the future.

The campus would be the first four-year historically Black college or university in California. The state is home to a private historically Black graduate institution, the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles County, but it has no HBCU option for undergraduates. The majority of HBCUs are concentrated in the South.

Paul Quinn administrators are establishing a committee to explore the idea and are considering locations in the San Francisco Bay Area. Like Paul Quinn’s main campus, the new campus would be an urban work college, where residential students are required to do paid internships, either on or off campus, which lowers their education costs. Sorrell noted that about 80 percent of students at Paul Quinn receive Pell Grants, federal financial aid for low-income students.

“We have every intention of building a national … network or system of urban work colleges, and that has always been our intention,” Sorrell said.

He noted that private higher ed institutions rarely create these kinds of networks, but he hopes to reach students in other parts of the country who would benefit from Paul Quinn’s model.

“Urban America is not being served well by higher education,” Sorrell said. “You’ve got community colleges, which are doing wonderful jobs in their communities, but there’s a need for more. What we have proven with our model is it works with the urban population, it works with Pell Grant students, it works with first-generation students. Our intensive, hands-on method of speaking to multiple areas of intellectual and emotional development works.”

Paul Quinn isn’t the only HBCU making moves to branch out and create new campuses.

Morgan State University got approval earlier this month to purchase a 59-acre property, a mile away from the university's main campus in East Baltimore, formerly the site of Lake Clifton High School. University leaders are drawing up a master plan for the satellite campus, a process expected to take about a year, and then they plan to build up the new site over the next 15 to 20 years, according to a press release from the institution. The new campus is expected to cost at least $200 million and will feature a multipurpose academic events building, graduate and undergraduate student housing, incubation centers for burgeoning businesses started by students, and nature trails. (Note: This paragraph was updated to clarify the number of acres of property Morgan State University purchased.)

The Northern Virginia Regional Commission, which represents 13 local governments, is also advocating for a regional HBCU campus in the area. Commission members have been discussing the possibility of a joint campus Northern Virginia, run by Norfolk State University and Virginia State University, both public HBCUs, according to Cydny Neville, chairwoman of the commission and an alumna of Virginia State. The commission set up a committee to provide university leaders with information about local demographics and economic development opportunities to help them decide how to possibly move forward with the idea. The closest HBCU in the commonwealth of Virginia is Virginia Union University in Richmond, which is several hours away.

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As a first-generation college student, Neville said, she thrived because of the “sense of ‘home’ that is unique to HBCUs,” she said in an email. She believes HBCUs provide a uniquely supportive educational experience for Black students and help them to graduate and build generational wealth in their communities. She also hopes an HBCU outpost could help serve the more than 405,000 people in Northern Virginia who never earned a bachelor’s degree.

“At HBCUs, students are surrounded by people with similar backgrounds and cultural experiences,” she said in an op-ed in InsideNoVa. “Students are submerged into a nurturing community of support and a family atmosphere among faculty, staff, administrators and peers who become an essential part of their extended family for a lifetime. Imagine the positive impact on families in our region and our region’s economy if residents had access to an HBCU education at a satellite campus within commuting distance.”

She believes the arrangement could be an opportunity for Norfolk State and Virginia State to secure new funding, develop new partnerships with industries and offer more internship opportunities for their students in Northern Virginia.

Sorrell described these expansion initiatives by HBCUs as creative ways to serve new student populations and increase access to these institutions.

“I think people are looking for ways to find new markets,” he said. “They’re looking for ways to solve problems, and I applaud that. I think innovation is critical to the viability of any industry, any institution. You either innovate or you perish. When higher education institutions step up and accept responsibility for speaking to the needs of the communities we serve, there’s just no downside to that. And yeah, there’s risk, but there’s risk to everything, and it’s just how you perceive your risk. I think the idea that doing nothing and maintaining the status quo is safe—I think that’s wrong. I think that’s incredibly risky.”

David Sheppard, chief legal officer and chief of staff at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, an organization representing public HBCUs, said these moves will help ensure the longevity of institutions. He believes satellite campuses in major metropolitan areas could be an especially effective way to reach potential students with some college credits but no degree who may want to attend an HBCU but do not want to move or commute long distances to complete their education. He also thinks urban branch campuses could attract people already working in local industries who might want to return to school for a graduate degree.

“In order for our schools and, realistically, any institution of higher education to be successful in the higher education marketplace, you have to meet students where they are,” he said. “If schools are undertaking efforts like this, they are more likely to be around 50 or 100 years from now than maybe institutions that don’t.”

While online education has flourished during the pandemic, Sheppard said the power of expanding “brick-and-mortar” offerings can’t be underestimated, because many students still want and benefit from more “direct, interpersonal engagement.”

As colleges and universities prepare for an impending decline in the number of traditional-age college students, building additional campuses in different regions has become an increasingly popular strategy to bring in new students and revenue, said Khadish O. Franklin, managing director and team lead of the research advisory services division at EAB, an education consulting firm.

By pursuing opportunities to start satellite campuses, HBCUs are also “thinking about their future beyond their own region” and “operating in much the same way as the rest of the sector,” he said. He noted that most HBCUs are late to the trend because of a historic lack of resources. While some of the institutions “have the forethought and have the available capital to think about those future investments,” other institutions “have to think about the challenges that face them today” and can’t afford to invest the long-term resources.

David Wilson, president of Morgan State, agreed that chronic underfunding has made branch campuses a rarity among HBCUs.

“Many HBCUs have been struggling to get resources to maintain their core campus and just didn’t have the luxury to begin to look at how we open another campus,” he said. The Maryland Legislature has already allocated $8.5 million to begin Morgan State’s satellite project, and Wilson plans to ask state lawmakers for another $180 million over the next five years.

Sheppard doesn’t expect smaller, less wealthy HBCUs that can’t afford new campuses to be negatively affected by the growth of their peers, as long as those institutions carve out niches for themselves and continue serving rural communities that larger, urban campuses do not.

“I don’t know what the future holds, but in terms of what’s come before, there have been difficult times and changing economic environments,” he said. “Those institutions have been able to survive despite those changes, and I have no reason to believe that they won’t going forward.”

Terrell L. Strayhorn, director of the Center for the Study of HBCUs at Virginia Union University, believes smaller HBCUs will also eventually become part of this growing trend and stand to benefit from it.

“I think larger and financially secure HBCUs will move first with this strategy of campus expansion via satellites, branch, and embedded corporate sites,” he said in an email. “But this will grow to incorporate smaller and financially (in)secure HBCUs, who will use it as part of a larger strategic move to help grow enrollments, increase revenue and expand the school’s footprint.”

Unlike some other higher ed institutions that are building new campuses to boost enrollment, Morgan State is creating another campus because of existing enrollment increases. Applications for admission rose by about 28 percent this year, and the university closed its application portal earlier than expected last week as a result. Total undergraduate enrollment at the university jumped from 6,270 students in fall 2020 to 7,034 in fall 2021.

“We can no longer accept students to be admitted to the institution because we don’t have any place to put them,” Wilson said. “We need space.”

Wilson believes there’s an increased demand for historically Black institutions in states without HBCUs, like California, and he says that demand is being driven by recent events—a pandemic that disproportionately affected Black communities and the national racial reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd. Black students are seeking colleges where they feel an extra sense of safety and belonging.

Young Black people “saw so many people who were in their age groups, who looked like them, murdered, and from their perspectives, simply because they were going to buy Skittles or walking through a neighborhood or jogging through a neighborhood,” he said. “And then, all of a sudden, the crescendo was George Floyd.”

Now that state lawmakers across the country are legislating against the teaching of critical race theory in schools and universities, Wilson believes Black students are especially eager to attend colleges where they are less likely to experience racism. He sees new plans for satellite campuses as a response to that demand.

“I think the young people are saying, ‘Wait, a minute here, I just don’t have time for that. I need to go to institutions that are affirming me,’” he said.

Sorrell said Paul Quinn’s enrollment, currently at 700 students, is the highest it’s been since 2006, but his plan to build a network of campuses isn’t about enrollment. He wants to spread an education model that prepares people “not just to be lifelong learners but to be lifelong earners.”

“I think about what do people need,” he said. “What do the people that we are charged with caring for, that we are charged with educating, need? What is it that they have articulated that they need that they are not receiving? We are poverty-proofing education.”

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