Paul Quinn College president Michael Sorrell thinks his work college model can thrive in cities across the country. But can it work without him?
Twelve hours before Paul Quinn College's biggest day of the summer, president Michael Sorrell is meeting with his staff. There's a lot to discuss. A fund-raiser for the school's on-campus farm is scheduled for tomorrow, and after that, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra is playing a free outdoor concert on the lawn outside the chapel. These are two of the most high-profile events of the year for this 450-student historically black institution located off Interstate 45 in a working-class African American neighborhood of South Dallas. But Sorrell isn't talking about any of that right now. He's focused on how Vincent is doing at J. C. Penney.
Vincent Owoseni, a junior finance major from Brooklyn, is interning at the Texas-based department store chain as part of Paul Quinn's work program, in which all students hold jobs on or off campus to help defray the cost of their education. But, Sorrell tells the room, Owoseni was having some trouble adjusting to the position--he was placed in the shipping department, which he wasn't prepared for. Sorrell seems conflicted about the news. On the one hand, he tells his staff that Vincent needs to understand that unexpected assignments are part of any career and that he'll learn just as much from the logistics side of J. C. Penney as from the customer-facing side. On the other hand, he treats the news as a possible warning sign. "He's one of the best students we've got here," Sorrell says. "If he's having trouble, how is everyone else doing?" He assigns staffers to check in on other students who might be in similar situations.
When I later catch up with Owoseni, he expresses no surprise that his name came up in the meeting. Sorrell, he says, has been in touch throughout the internship. Indeed, he'd been reaching out to him since high school. Owoseni was valedictorian at City Polytechnic High School, and Sorrell flew out to meet him. "He was very inspiring," Owoseni says. "He asked what I wanted to do. Then he told me, 'You can do better than that.' "
"Better than that" is a fair description of Sorrell's own aspirational leadership philosophy, and of the school's trajectory since he took over as president in 2007. He arrived to find a college that was on the verge of closing its doors, buried under a mountain of debt with more than a dozen abandoned buildings and a four-year graduation rate of 1 percent. It seemed less "fixer-upper" than "lost cause."
Sorrell went to work right away. He axed the expensive football program and turned the playing field into a farm, where students can work and from which food gets donated to the surrounding neighborhood. He traveled the country, visiting other colleges to learn from their presidents, and building up recruiting relationships with high schools. He nearly doubled the size of the student body, and raised millions from donors and corporate partners, enough to put (and keep) the school in the black.
The stunning turnaround of Paul Quinn has made Sorrell into a mini-celebrity. He's been interviewed on HBO, spoken at the Aspen Ideas Festival, and participated in countless higher education panels. But what he is increasingly getting attention for is the work program, which he first rolled out in 2015. All students are required to work at least eight hours a week, first on campus for the college, then off campus for participating employers. Twenty-four hundred dollars of students' wages per year go to offsetting their tuition, the rest goes into their pockets. This has allowed Paul Quinn to slash its total cost of attendance from $23,800 to $14,275 a year. Sorrell's goal is to get students into the job market with less than $10,000 in debt; the average student takes on only $2,300 in loans a year after Pell Grants and other subsidies along with work tuition credits.
The idea that students of modest means can contribute some of their labor in exchange for lower tuition is not new. Some Catholic high schools and a few rural liberal arts colleges have long operated that way. But Sorrell is the first to apply the model in an urban college setting. He is also the first to extend the concept beyond low-skill on-campus jobs to off-campus positions with private-sector employers, where students can garner skills and connections that might give them a leg up in the post-college job market.
This "New Urban College Model," as Sorrell calls it, addresses some of the most pressing problems in higher education: how to substantially reduce tuition for lower-income, and especially minority, students in a way that colleges can afford; how to do so for students who need the high-touch support of a liberal arts college and who might otherwise get lost in a larger public university; and how to better integrate a liberal arts education with the job market. (Sorrell thinks his model can achieve even more--that reinventing the urban campus can also bring back depressed urban neighborhoods.)
It's no wonder that Sorrell's innovations are a hot topic in higher ed reform circles. The question is whether those interventions are, in wonk-speak, "replicable." In other words, can other schools achieve what Paul Quinn College has without a one-in-a-million leader like Michael Sorrell?
Like a lot of colleges these days, Paul...