‘This is Paul Quinn’s Golden Era:’ How the President of One of the Most Innovative HBCUs Sets His Students Up for Success

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  • Paul Quinn College is the first urban college and first HBCU to become a federally recognized work college.
  • It works with corporate partners to give students work experiences every semester of their four years.
  • But the college is judicious with who they partner with: “We try not to send our students to places where they won’t be welcome.” — Michael Sorrell, President of Paul Quinn

Michael Sorrell has places to be — a basketball game to be exact. Right on the heels of captivating an audience at SXSW EDU, discussing HBCUs and the Future of Work with two of his fellow HBCU presidents, the longtime President of Paul Quinn College has to quickly make the 200-mile trip from Austin back to Dallas to support the Tigers as they play in their conference championship tournament (which they proceeded to win).

Paul Quinn’s basketball court is a perfect example of the vision and change President Sorrell has brought to the college, bringing it back from the brink of extinction to now receiving national attention for its innovations. Last fall, Paul Quinn unveiled the new design of its court and as ESPN put it, “When it comes to top basketball court designs, Paul Quinn College might be going for the crown.”

But the court is just one in a long list of things Paul Quinn has done that sets it apart from others. In 2017, the college became the first urban college and the first HBCU to become a federally recognized work college, which means that students participate in a comprehensive work-learning service program for all four years of school.

In the small window of time between the panel and heading back to Dallas, The Plug sat down with President Sorrell to chat about how he made radical decisions that changed the trajectory of Paul Quinn College. In this interview, Sorrell talks about how he chooses the college’s corporate partners and why this is Paul Quinn’s golden era.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


How long have you been with Paul Quinn? 

15 years. 

As president the whole time? 

As president the whole time. 

That’s kind of rare in the HBCU space, and in the higher education space. 

That’s rare in the higher ed space.

What brought you to Paul Quinn?

They asked. I didn’t come up through higher education. I was a securities lawyer. I worked in politics, I worked in sports and I was an entrepreneur and was building my company and had been on the board of Paul Quinn. And when we were sort of going through an existential crisis and didn’t have a president, the board asked me to be the president and, you know, my plan was to do it for a short period of time and it just turned into a thing.

Yeah, 15 years is a thing. So what was your company? 

It’s called Victor Credo. We were problem solvers. Fortune 500 companies, sports franchises, elected officials would hire us to solve problems. And it didn’t really matter what kind of problem, the more challenging, the more creative we became. So that was what I was doing.

Okay, so what was this existential crisis y’all were going through, was that 2007ish?

In 2006, 2007. The Boston Consulting Group had come in to do an evaluation of the college and determined that if significant changes weren’t made, within two years, the school would close. 

Was that because of financial issues?

Everything. Financial, just the experiences people were having. We weren’t who we needed to be. 

Okay, so in the past 15 years, there are a few big things that, for the general population, if they know about Paul Quinn, they know y’all turned your football field into a farm. You just announced the Village program. Why make these sort of big, radical decisions? What were you hoping that would do for the college? 

Oh, it’s funny. I don’t see them as radical. I had a southern grandmother from Waterproof, Louisiana. She told me when I was a little boy — she called me baby boy, I was the youngest grandson — and she said, ‘Baby boy, sometimes you got to give people what the hand calls for.’

And the reality of it is we’re giving people what the hand calls for. So whatever it is that our students and the communities we serve express are their issues, things that they care about, that’s what we address. 

These are all things that came from listening to the communities we serve tell us what their needs were and we responded to their needs. 

When did Paul Quinn specifically become this federally recognized work college?

It’s funny, 2017. But we started working towards the model in 2011.


One, because in all of higher education, more than 70 percent, 80 percent of students work more than 20 hours per week. In the HBCU space, 70 percent, 75 percent of our students are on Pell grants. People don’t have money.

And you know, higher education behaved badly, not acknowledging people’s real financial straits. And so we looked at it and said, ‘Look people are working, they’re gonna have to work, but what if the college helped you? What if, instead of having to work the night shift because the night shift paid more money, you could fold your academic pursuits into your work needs. What if we allowed that to help you build a stronger experience for yourself?’

And that’s why. It spoke to the need that the marketplace displayed. 

What does being a work college entail in specifics for students that go to Paul Quinn?

So, if you’re a residential student, you work an average of 15 hours per week. Depending upon where you are, in the first semester or year, you’re in the training program. So you may work on campus, but mostly we’re preparing you. 

And then we work to get you into the corporate work program, which is off-campus. And you work an internship for, you know, 14, 15 hours per week and you’re paid somewhere between either $10,000 for the school year or $15,000 for the school year. And what that does for you is given the fact that tuition and fees in total are $18,000 and because 80 percent of our students are on Pell grants, that’s another $7,000. 

So if you have a $15,000 a year internship, you have another $7,000 in Pell grants — $22,000 to pay for $18,000, you make $4,000. 

Let’s say you wind up in the $10,000 internship, you’re $1,000 short. So let’s say you borrow $4,000 over the course of four years to pay for college. You’re still winning. So you graduate, you have real-world work experience, which immediately translates into job opportunities. You have radically reduced your financial exposure and you went to a place where people love you.

It’s always a win all around.

How big is the student body? 

Right now, we’re around 600. We reduced the size of the school during the pandemic.

Like y’all accepted fewer folks? 

We accepted fewer, recruited fewer, just because we just thought that was the smart thing to do given that we weren’t sure all the things we were going to be dealing with. 

Okay, what’s y’all’s job placement rate then? 

80 percent of our students have jobs at graduation.

What are some of the corporations that work with y’all? 

JP Morgan Chase, Oncor — it’s an energy company — NTT Data, the Dallas Mavericks, the Dallas Cowboys. 

What kinds of roles do students work for at like JP Morgan? 

They do a little bit of everything. I mean the goal is to get them full-time employment in these places. 

In the panel, you kind of alluded, jokingly, to Morehouse and Spelman getting more money with the influx of attention and everything that’s happened after the summer of 2020. But in actuality, I mean that’s kind of true, them getting some of like the bigger donations, like Reed Hastings, of Netflix, all that. What does that mean for Paul Quinn, not being one of the more well-known HBCUs? Is that even a thing? 

Listen, we all have our time to shine. This is Paul Quinn’s golden era. So Morehouse and Spelman have been the stalwarts of historically Black colleges for years. And I truly meant it when I said I am a cheerleader for those institutions. Like I am thrilled about it. I don’t begrudge anyone for the success and the opportunities they have.

Our job is to create a narrative for ourselves so that we push into a different stratosphere, which is what we are doing. You know, we’re generally considered one of the five or ten most innovative colleges in America and have been that way for at least the last decade.

So it takes time to catch up in the public consciousness and I mean, things just don’t all of a sudden change. So we’re fine. David [Thomas, President of Morehouse] was right when he was like, ‘Listen, Paul Quinn’s getting plenty of money.’ 

And we like donors and investors that are contrarians. We like donors who kind of want to challenge the status quo, who want to do it a little bit differently. If that’s who you are, then we’re the perfect school for you to invest in because there is no one pushing the envelope more than we are. 

In this current model of a work college, you’re getting folks internships, you’re getting them job placements before they graduate. It kind of seems like preparation for the ‘present of work.’ How are you innovating to have your students be prepared and ready for the future of work and the way the workplace is changing? 

Well, it’s real-time. I mean, the beauty of having students in internships every year is we don’t have to tell them theoretically we’re preparing you for that. They see what it looks like. I mean it’s real every day. It’s not, ‘Oh yeah, second semester you’ll have an internship.’ 

No. You’re gonna intern every year that you’re here. Every semester that you are here. We don’t have to just tell you about it. You are seeing it every day. That’s invaluable.

Why do you think more colleges, more HBCUs especially because they serve populations that are high Pell populations, first-generation, why aren’t more schools work colleges?

Because I mean listen, higher education is not a place that openly covets radical innovation. People like what they’ve always done. They like the stability. You don’t typically go into higher education because you’re a gunslinger. So, I think it is challenging and becoming a work college isn’t easy. You’ve got to get faculty to understand what their evolved role must be. You have to have a training program in the institution. You have to have people going out getting the jobs.

It is not easy. So you know, I think people tend to embrace that which they’ve always known. 

So after everything that happens in the summer of 2020, what did that impact look like for Paul Quinn? 

You’re talking about George Floyd? 

Yes, and then the reckoning and then all these companies like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. We’ve been racist forever. Let’s change that over the next two months.’

Yeah, you know, here’s one thing I don’t know if people really thought about. First of all, You appreciate the opportunity. And his death is not an opportunity. You just appreciate the opportunity for people to be aware of your substance and of your value in a broader context because we’ve always known that we were substantive that we’ve always known that we had tremendous value, it’s just some folks never thought about it because they’ve never had to.

But there is a psychological impact of constantly having to revisit those issues. I think about James Baldwin and paraphrasing his quote, to be Black and to be conscious in America, you really do have to manage the emotional toil that that brings. And so people who want to continuously talk about it and revisit it and want to know your experience, like, I’ve been Black my whole life, right? I’ve managed this space. I’m a large Black male, I have managed this space my entire life. 

But it’s a little bit different when it’s in the service of your students and your institutions, so you find a way to push through. 

As more people are coming to you, how do you manage the fact that you might be placing students with companies that have historic or even recent allegations of discrimination? How do you, how do you manage that sort of discrepancy? 

First of all, kudos to you for that question because no one has ever asked that question, which to me, I don’t know how you don’t ask that question, just being candid. 

We try not to send our students to places where they won’t be welcome.

So my interest in scholarship early on in my academic career was around the Civil Rights Movement and Brown v. Board of Education. One thing as I became more conscious and more aware of the impact of segregation, I realized we should have sent the teachers before we sent the students.

So sending in the students without any administrative support was sort of like sending in your troops, your ground forces, without any air support and so the kids were ravaged. 

So we think long and hard about who we partner with because it’s the same thing. If there aren’t people in place who can be advocates for the students, who can put their arms around the students… 

How do you determine that? Is that looking at the board-level racial breakdown? 

No, because the boards aren’t… That would be nice, yeah. But I think about when I was a law student at Duke and I made a personal decision, I wasn’t going to accept an offer from any firm that didn’t have a Black male partner. And I did that. The place I went to work had a Black male partner. 

And as I looked into it, I realized it was kind of like you have to take the same approach. Who’s going to be watching out for your students? Who’s gonna mentor them? Who in that organization has a track record of nurturing talent? 

We pay really close attention to that. 

So y’all are quite judicious. It’s not, you can just come and flash some cash.

We don’t have to take everybody’s money and we don’t have to take everyone’s vision of an opportunity. And I get it, I get it right. That seems the antithesis of what colleges and universities do and you have to start somewhere and all of that. 

But listen, people are trusting us with their families. That means something to me. And when people from under-resourced communities trust you, they’re trusting you with a disproportionate amount of the hope that they have. 

You’re not just gonna sell a dream.

I’m not selling anyone out. And we’ll figure it out. It doesn’t mean that we might not make mistakes, but we’re gonna try not to make the same mistake twice.

Mirtha Donastorg

Mirtha Donastorg is a corps member with Report for America and The Plug's HBCU Innovation Editor and Senior Reporter, exploring start-up initiatives and innovations coming from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, as well as the way students are shaping the future of tech. She previously worked as an associate producer and a researcher for CNN.
Contact: mirtha@tpinsights.com