By Tait Kellogg, PhD, Director of Research and Strategic Services
Higher education must change. The sector has been through a massive time of forced innovation, as the pandemic mandated that leaders pivot quickly and think creatively in response to the need to operate virtually. We must utilize this unique moment in history to continue to innovate towards reorienting higher education to become truly learner focused.
College was not designed for the new majority learners, including learners who have jobs, speak English as a second language, are parents, enroll later in life, are undocumented, were formerly incarcerated, and/or attend school part-time. Yet, these learners now make up the majority of enrolled students. They are also the most likely to be negatively impacted by the global COVID-19 crisis, as compared to their peers who have the financial support of family. Changing our institutions to become oriented around the new majority learners requires bold leadership.
Dr. Michael Sorrell offers an example of such innovative leadership, willing to take a leap for the sake of changing his institution to become authentically learner oriented. Dr. Sorrell recently served as the keynote speaker for the Woodward Hines Education Foundation’s (WHEF) IMPACT convening. The convening brought together leaders from across the public four-year postsecondary system in the state of Mississippi, oriented around WHEF’s IMPACT (Improving Mississippi’s Persistence and Completion Together) grant awarded to six institutions. Key to WHEF’s work (including with the IMPACT grant) is a focus on equity, including increasing college access and success opportunity for transfer students, low-income students, and particularly for Black and Brown students in the state.
Dr. Sorrell’s keynote speech drew from his own experience as the President of Paul Quinn College, a historically Black college in Dallas, Texas. He began his story with a bold message: “Be willing to change everything.” When Dr. Sorrell took the helm at Paul Quinn College, the institution was in a crisis that could have closed its doors, with only 30 days of cash left on hand. The college pivoted to become the first “Urban Working College,” an institutional model that requires students to work, offsetting the costs of tuition and fees. In order to move to this new, innovative model, Dr. Sorrell cut the football program. He ended the semester after Thanksgiving, recognizing that those final weeks of school in December were merely a burden for students who could not afford to travel home and come back for that short window. He ended classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays so that students could maintain employment during the week.
Core to Dr. Sorrell’s message was authenticity. As College President, he continues to teach several courses a year in order to stay connected to students and their stories at Paul Quinn College. What do students need from leaders? Dr. Sorrell’s message is that “students need you to be present, to fully see them and meet them where they are with no judgement.” He also encouraged leaders to tap into their authentic selves and be transparent with students about their own journeys. Higher education institution leaders and policymakers must “elevate the needs of students to make it evident that they are what we love.”
Dr. Sorrell challenged the higher education leaders of Mississippi to look at their own institutional and policies practices and ask, “What doors are you closing unintentionally? What practices build a bigger barrier for students?” As our society emerges to a new world following global pandemic closures, how can higher education push for a new era, one built on dismantling the barriers facing our new majority learners?