If Paul Quinn College only crosses your mind when you pass its sign on the side of Interstate 45, it could be time to change your perspective.
Nine miles south of downtown Dallas, a plan to revolutionize colleges everywhere has emerged from a campus that was once on the verge of collapse.
“The simple answer of why is because our students needed it,” said Paul Quinn President Michael Sorrell. “It isn’t any more complicated than that.”
Students like Genesis Garcia are the norm. “My mom only went to school up to the sixth grade,” she explained. “My father finished high school, but that would be in Mexico.”
“On any given year, between 80 and 90 percent of our students qualify for Pell Grants, which means they’re coming from the lowest economic strata in the country," Sorrell said. "In addition to that, 70 percent of our students have zero expected family contributions, which means no one in their family has the ability to help them pay for school.”
Sorrell and faculty members realized the students at the historically black college needed a cheaper, faster way to earn a degree and find a job, which would change their families, forever.
So, Paul Quinn became the first college in a major city designated as a federal work college, which means every student now holds a job - most in the corporate world.
“If you’re looking at students who come to you from poverty and hearing from employers that they want entry-level students to come to them with real-world work experience, why wouldn’t you marry the two?” Sorrell explained. “We’ve created a model where our students are working and going to school. We like to say they are learning how to think and learning how to do.”
Students feel the impact.
“When you talk about hands-on learning, you actually get it and you get paid for it,” said Carnelius Manning, a freshman. “I’m working in a business setting, which will give me the resume as well as the education you get from being around people that are already doing the things you want to do.”
Their salaries help pay for tuition, which the college lowered. They also changed class schedules with the goal being that a degree would only require three to three and a half years. Perhaps most notably, they got rid of expensive textbooks.
“They weren’t buying the books because their families needed that money,” said Sorrell. “And if the choice was Chaucer or rent, Chaucer lost every time.”
In addition, Paul Quinn will debut curriculum they call “reality-based education.” For example, students will learn economics by studying why grocery stores don’t move into neighborhoods that look like theirs.
Sorrell made a rousing speech to higher education advocates in Austin early in the spring outlining the changes while also announcing future expansion.
Starting in the fall, the school will basically franchise itself, opening Paul Quinns nationwide to offer students what Sorrell calls a common-sense approach to college.
“This is the future of higher education,” he said to a loud round of applause.
Paul Quinn is not perfect. Only 550 students are currently enrolled and, on average, only 20 percent graduate within four years.
But according to Sorrell, if they had more funding to build additional dorms the student body would quickly grow. The school lacks the large endowment fund that many large state universities enjoy.
“There are more schools like us that are trying to figure this thing out, flying without a net and living on the margin,” he said. “This is our time.”
Garcia is proof that those who are currently at Paul Quinn believe the school and its reimagined college concept deserve to be noticed.
“I see myself really making an impact in the community and hopefully the world,” Garcia said. “Making an impact, that’s it. I don’t care how, but just making a difference.”