Lisa Smith took to the streets of Dallas in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, protesting the killing of another Black man in police custody side-by-side with many of her Paul Quinn College classmates.
As a California-native who made Paul Quinn a home largely because of its activist culture, being at the center of a national reckoning on race felt right. It was the moment, she said, when her studies, her school and the world converged onto themselves.
“I knew it as soon as I saw everything happening that Paul Quinn was going to be at the center of it all,” Smith said. “This is why (you come here).”
And many more students are following in her path.
While college enrollment numbers are down across the nation, Paul Quinn College is among the historically Black colleges and universities seeing an uptick.
After a summer of Black Lives Matter protests and a coronavirus pandemic that has highlighted structural inequalities, colleges like Paul Quinn have received added attention.
A 2019 study by Rutgers University called “A Response to Racism” had already projected that HBCUs will experience enrollment growth until 2024. And in recent months, notables from high-profile athletes former president Barack Obama have highlighted the virtues of an HBCU experience.
This is a window, says Maruice West, dean of men at Paul Quinn.
West sees the signs of growth despite the lack of students on the 144-acre campus. The school has newly renovated basketball courts and two buildings under construction, one with additional residential space and another with more classrooms.
“At HBCUs, it is like running the 800-meter-dash,” West said. “You have to do all the legwork to be ready for an opportunity and when the window comes, you have to sprint.”
But West knows having these windows of opportunities and capitalizing on them are two different things. They don’t open often and they close fast.
At its lowest point about a decade ago, Paul Quinn had about 441 students and one of the country’s lowest graduation rates, which was lower than 1%.
Enrollment and graduation rates were on a steady rise. And then came 2016. That summer racial tension ran high after Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota were both killed by police. It was the same summer that a gunman ambushed officers during a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally in Dallas and just before the presidential election.
Social activism across the country rose, and so did enrollment at Paul Quinn College, up to 519 undergraduate students. More were interested, but the college couldn’t sustain the growth. Paul Quinn did not have the infrastructure in place. That window came and went.
But this moment feels different as college officials say they are more prepared to meet the growing demand.
Enrollment has already exceeded projections at around 470 students. While this seems like a backslide, Paul Quinn intentionally decreased enrollment capacity at the start of the semester to be able to provide laptops and hotspots to each student. The college had planned for 400 students originally, but demand outpaced this number.
If the college had not made this decision, enrollment could have been around 600 to 700 students this semester.
Officials originally worried the pandemic would mean a drop at the small campus where more than 80% of students are on some form of financial aid. Thus far, it has not been the case.
“We expect it to keep rising because, here, we are fighting for communities that nobody else is fighting for,” said Chris Dowdy, vice president of academic affairs.
The attractiveness of Paul Quinn goes beyond the academics, students say. It is about a culture of awareness and fighting for a community that has traditionally been left out. The location of the college itself is a metaphor for this, perched in an underdeveloped part of Southern Dallas that the city has long neglected, officials say.
During a time of protests over how police treat Black men and with the heated presidential election nearing, this holistic, all-consuming activist approach is drawing students in.
On a recent day before one of the presidential debates, the staff at Paul Quinn hosted a virtual symposium with students to talk about the issues facing the country and what students were concerned about most.
People from all over the country logged onto Zoom. A student from Minneaoplis talked about her direct experience of Floyd, living near the burning buildings as the city became an epicenter for the current social justice movement. Another from New York talked about the impacts the coronavirus has on Black and Latino communities there.
Each academic semester, students are required to take at least one class that ties their field of study to the social implications of their work. Students catalogue and become involved in everything from environmental racism to how the law can remedy structural inequalities.
In 2018, for example, Paul Quinn students studied the air quality in South Dallas to show the downwind effect of pollution that disproportionately impacts the health of the Black community. It was a follow-up to the 2011 “We Are Not Trash Movement” that the college started to keep landfills from expanding in the communities immediately surrounding Paul Quinn.
Students are urged to help with the school’s farm — located on a former football field — that yields about 25,000 pounds of food to service the campus. Now every Saturday, free COVID tests are given to anyone who comes, with the help of federal funding.
Incorporating public policy into curriculum is key, especially now during concerns related to COVID-19, voter suppression and Black Lives Matter, said Ervin James III, a professor of humanities and social sciences.
“How do you find the value of your work to address community issues?” James said. “The intensity of this moment… how do we ratchet up our intensity to rise to it as a school?”
As are most windows of growth for HBCUs across the country, the moment is never perfect. This one isn’t either.
Paul Quinn would normally be a hub of activity for students expressing their activism. The campus would be taking on a new vibrancy, gaining momentum with the increased enrollment.
Instead, the coronavirus has forced this college to go fully virtual. The economic impacts of the virus have disproportionately impacted the students attending Paul Quinn, school officials said.
The college recruits from traditionally underserved, economically disadvantaged communities. Most students work full-time jobs at home to pay for college. Prospective students have also been weighed down by the pressures at home.
“Our students are working two to three jobs sometimes now at home,” said Kelsel Thompson, the director of external affairs.
The school is trying to compensate through scholarships and assistance for other expenses such as healthcare. It is similar to what is being done at Howard University, another HBCU in Washington, D.C., where there are work programs for students.
The school’s efforts and low tuition — about $11,000 a year — is attractive to many students who don’t want the economic strain from pandemic to derail college plans.
“I would say it is a cheap school, one of the lowest tuition rates in the country, but not a cheap education,” said Kenneth Boston, a local student at the college.
There are COVID-19 financial implications for the college overall as well. While enrollment is up at HBCUs, the financial benefits have lagged because of a lack of in-person classes. Paul Quinn has not been immune to it, but some institutional protections have eased the pain.
In a normal year, the college does not rely heavily on tuition to function. It has partnerships with other colleges and companies that provide revenue. This year, as well, Paul Quinn has been able to alleviate costs by not having food workers on campus and the other fees related to having students in dorms.
“We wanted to look at how we can be stronger when we come out of this,” university president Michael Sorrell said. “It was all about streamlining it laying the infrastructure to grow.”
The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.
The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Communities Foundation of Texas, The Meadows Foundation, The Dallas Foundation, Southern Methodist University, Todd A. Williams Family Foundation, The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, and the Solutions Journalism Network. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.