Out-of-the-box thinking leads to innovative programs at this HBCU

President Michael J. Sorrell of Dallas' Paul Quinn College embeds activism and community engagement in his students' higher ed experience

“You either want to do something or you don’t. My experience in life has been that people find ways to do the things that are important to them,” says Michael J. Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College in Dallas.

Sorrell has been president of the HBCU since 2007 and has implemented an array of innovative programs and opportunities for the PQC students.

The Urban Scholars Program

The college recently launched—in partnership with the Minerva Project—the Urban Scholars Program with the most concentrated focus being the Purpose pathway. It allows students to complete their college education in three years. The program is full-time and fully online.

Michael J. Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College (Photo: Paul Quinn College)

“It’s one thing to get people out early, but if you get them out early and they aren’t prepared to succeed, then you still wasted their time,” notes Sorrell.

“You need a format that allows you to intensify the learning opportunities—expediting the learning opportunity, but intensifying essential matter that you take away. It may be a shorter time period, but we’ve crammed a lot more into that short time period.”

Learning at PQC goes well beyond the college walls. “The Urban Scholars Program is in this activist mindset. We’re going to provide you with the ability to learn and to work hard. But we’re also going to acknowledge the fact that a big piece of learning is experiential learning. You have to get outside of the classroom,” stresses Sorrell.

Urban Scholars focus on addressing one of three challenges facing urban communities—the multigenerational wealth gap, criminal justice reform, or equitable and accessible health care.

According to the college’s website, “We anticipate that students will graduate with no more than $7,500 in loan debt and ideally less. The bulk of the program costs will be offset by Pell Grants in the first year and through a combination of work-study income and employer subsidies in the second and third years.” Urban Scholars are expected to work 15-20 hours a week after their first year.

More PQC Opportunities

Not only are students at PQC earning a college degree, they are able to earn a certificate each year they are in school.

Additionally, PQC is a member of the Work Colleges Consortium. Notably, the school holds the distinction of being the first urban work college. All residential students are required to work. The work-college model allows students to keep some of their earnings, while the rest goes to cutting attendance costs.

“So at the end of the day, you can graduate with four different certificates, in addition to your degree, in addition to your four-year, real world experience,” explains Sorrell.

Sorrell says all PQC students have a responsibility in the community. “The reality of a lot of these community outreach projects is students have a wonderful experience, or they take something away. But at the end of the day, there has been no material improvement in the community. What we try to teach is the idea that what really needs to be done is you, as a student, engage,” says Sorrell. The community needs to know, “we’re going to stand side by side with you, shoulder to shoulder. We’re going to learn from you and let what you need, inform how we engage.”

A Competitive Edge in the Marketplace

Because students at PQC are tasked with “enacting transformation,” Sorrell says relationship capital is essential. He points out that 85% of the college’s students are Pell Grant recipients.

“When you come from that type of socioeconomic background, you grow up without relationship capital. The lack of relationship capital is really detrimental to your long-term development.”

“Imagine if you go to school and you don’t have the opportunity for high-quality internships,” says Sorrell.

“All you do is the part-time jobs that you could get to help pay the bills. So you graduate from college and you didn’t do any internships because you were too busy trying to make ends meet. The people you’re competing against, in the meantime, are getting internships. So helping our students get the necessary internship experience, gives them the competitive edge when they go into the marketplace.”

(Photo: Paul Quinn College)

Addressing Obstacles

With schools struggling through the effects of the pandemic, PQC took steps last summer to up its support for students. With a student population of more than 500, the college offered laptops and WiFi hotspots to those in need. Sorrell also implemented a $2,000 tuition reduction.

When WorkingNation notes that Sorrell doesn’t sit in an ivory tower, he says, “Never will. You can sit around and wait for someone to figure out a way to do what you need done, or you can just go find a way to do it yourself.”