By KATE McGEE and ANDREW ZHANG
The Texas Tribune
High school senior Ke’shawn Rubell thought he was just visiting Paul Quinn College on Feb. 17.
Instead, in a ceremony held between the women’s and men’s basketball games, Rubell and more than 400 students from five Fort Worth high schools were surprised with acceptance letters to the historically Black college.
But there was more.
Each of them will also be able to select two family members or friends to enroll with them this fall to pursue their own certificate or degree.
The announcement is part of the college’s new admissions and recruiting philosophy that will take place across the school this fall.
If a student is accepted with at least a 3.0 grade-point average and qualifies for federal financial aid, they can also choose two family members or friends to enroll with them.
The goal is to take the pressure and responsibility to change the course of a family’s financial situation off of just the first-generation college student and increase the odds of success when a family can witness each other working toward a certificate or degree.
“Your teammates matter,” Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, told The Texas Tribune. “If you can invest in your teammates, if you can invest in your village, that makes the village stronger and that improves the odds and opportunities for your village to thrive.”
The two additional family members or friends who are selected to enroll will be able to pursue a bachelor’s degree through the college’s online degree programs or a certificate through a new credentialing program at the school called PQCx. Sorrell said they are directing these students toward the online school because they anticipate most of the family and friends are already working, which might make full-time in-person college unsustainable. Current students who meet the qualifications are also allowed to invite two family members or friends to enroll at some point within the next year.
Rubell, a senior at Eastern Hills High School in Fort Worth, called the program and its surprise announcement “amazing,” especially for his community where some people don’t look forward to college. Rubell said that he would give the added college opportunity to his brother and his mother, who started but did not finish college.
“My mother was working job to job, and my brother, he was in and out of jail, so it was just me going to school,” Rubell said. “That took a big toll on me. It changed my mindset mentally, knowing that I need to make a change.”
A multisport student-athlete, Rubell said his favorite subject is English and that he would like to study communications if he doesn’t become an athlete.
“I love to tell my story,” Rubell said. “I like to relate that to other people, let them know that you’re not the only one that’s been in that situation.”
Sara Goldrick-Rab, a higher education policy and sociology professor at Temple University and founding director of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice in Philadelphia, said this new model is the kind of innovative thinking that higher education leaders and experts have come to expect from PQC and its leader.
She said the new model could help improve retention and boost enrollment among first-generation college students who often face loneliness and guilt when they leave their families to attend college.
“He’s recognizing that you can take a student and get them more education,” she said of Sorrell. “But if the family doesn’t have resources, there is a pull towards home that can bring them down.”
But she cautioned that family members who have never pursued higher education or haven’t been in the classroom for a while might need an even larger academic or emotional support system to remain in the classroom.
Sorrell insisted the new model was not created as an enrollment solution, but if it’s successful, it would positively affect the private college’s finances as these additional students would also probably qualify for federal or state financial aid.
Across the country, private colleges and universities – which rely heavily on tuition and fees to balance their budgets – have struggled with enrollment declines made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, PQC’s enrollment dropped from 554 students in the fall of 2019 to just 385 this past fall.
The college was founded in Waco 1872 by a group of African Methodist Episcopal Church preachers in Austin to educate freed slaves and their descendants. The college moved to Dallas in 1990.
Its model is as unique as they come in the higher education world. In 2017, it became the first urban work college in the country – in which all students are required to have a job, either on campus or with a partner company through the college’s Corporate Work Program. In exchange, the student receives an annual $5,000 scholarship and cash stipend that helps reduce student debt and provide meaningful work experiences. Eighty-five percent of students qualify for Pell Grants, indicating they come from families with low incomes. The school accepts 80% of applicants.
Goldrick-Rab said its unique setup means this may not be a model that could be easily replicated at other colleges or universities.
But for this college, she said it could work.
“Bringing people with you who you know makes college a family affair,” she said. “Which, to be honest with you, I think would particularly resonate with African American families who are very close knit. That is wicked smart.”
For Rubell, the surprise announcement of the program felt like a moment of acceptance for him, especially when he got to talk with the college’s president.
“I had told him that ‘You’re going to remember my name, sir,’” Rubell said. “And he was like, ‘I know I am.’ So that right there alone made me feel accepted. The atmosphere was amazing.”