Paul Quinn College president Michael Sorrell teaches a leadership class in the campus library in Dallas, Monday, Oct. 15, 2007. Credit: AP Photo/David Pellerin

Oakland students may soon have another local college in their backyards. 

Paul Quinn College, a historically Black school in Dallas, has launched a committee to explore an expansion to the Bay Area, with a specific focus on Oakland. While establishing a new campus would be years away, the idea is energizing Oakland education leaders about what it could mean for Black high schoolers, who attend college at lower rates than other groups. 

The possible move, which was first reported by the Dallas Morning News, would also expose more Bay Area students to historically Black colleges and their cultures. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are mainly spread across the southern United States, and many, including Paul Quinn, were founded in the years following the Civil War to educate Black Americans. HBCU alumni include Vice President Kamala Harris, Martin Luther King Jr., late actor Chadwick Boseman, politician Stacey Abrams, Oprah Winfrey, and many more civil rights leaders, entertainers, athletes, and business people. 

Paul Quinn College would be the first undergraduate HBCU in the state. Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, a historically Black graduate school, is located in Los Angeles. 

The move would also strengthen the existing relationship between Paul Quinn College and Oakland Unified School District, which sends a handful of students to the school each year. 

“We’ve been recruiting students from the district for almost a decade. We think the Bay Area is a wonderful place to open up an HBCU experience,” said Michael Sorrell, the college president. “Our goal is to create a national network of urban work colleges, because our models work for students from under-resourced communities.” 

Paul Quinn College was founded in 1872 in Waco, Texas, and moved to its current flagship campus in Dallas in 1990. The school also has a campus in Plano, just north of Dallas. The Oakland expansion would be its first campus outside of Texas. Sorrell, who has led the school as president since 2007, also serves on the advisory board of the Oakland Promise, an organization that offers scholarships and resources for Oakland students to attend college. 

With Oakland’s history as a hub of Black activism and culture, adding an HBCU would only strengthen that legacy, and would bolster the city’s and the region’s higher education offerings. 

“We’ve got the Peralta Colleges, Mills College, Holy Names, Samuel Merritt. It’s exciting when we look at how the broader educational institutions can be strengthened with an additional player like Paul Quinn, an HBCU,” said City Councilmember Loren Taylor, who supports the effort to bring a Paul Quinn campus to Oakland. “The gap we’re talking about filling is the low enrollment of Black people into higher education.”

While details about the expansion are few, optimism is high. The possibility also brings more scrutiny to OUSD and how well the district is preparing students for college, said Cynthia Adams, the vice president of the Oakland NAACP chapter. 

During the 2018-2019 school year, the most recent year that state tests were comprehensively administered in OUSD, about 33% of students met or exceeded their grade level in reading. For Black students, less than 20% did. Last year, the local NAACP chapter filed an administrative petition with the district to improve literacy outcomes.

“This is something that is so energizing to Oakland,” said Adams, who added that she’s been receiving phone calls and messages from dozens of people who want to get involved in the effort to bring Paul Quinn to Oakland. “But one thing that we really have to make sure of is that our kids can read. We’ve got to do better by the reading scores.”

Over the past 10 years, about 60% of OUSD students have enrolled at a two or four-year college within a year of graduating from high school. In 2020 and 2021, that percentage dipped to just below 50%. Raising the college-going rates to pre-pandemic levels has been a recent focus of Kateri Dodds Simpson, OUSD’s college access coordinator. 

“In 2020, the shutdowns hit us particularly right when kids were making decisions about where they wanted to go to college and when the community college timeline took off,” she said. “We saw a huge amount of students who didn’t go to any community, [career and technical education] training program, or a four-year college.” 

Still, racial disparities in college enrollment rates persist. For Black students, college-going rates have ranged from about 18% to 27% in the past decade, compared with white students, who go to college at rates around 50% or higher. Of the Black OUSD students who have gone on to four-year colleges in the past five years, about 22% have chosen a historically Black college. 

“The numbers speak for themselves in that there is definitely interest for HBCUs,” said Vinh Trinh, who works with the district’s high school linked learning office. “Our school system has been focused on the UCs and CSUs and Peralta Colleges. But over the past five years, I think we definitely brought more exposure and information [about HBCUs] to our students because I think it’s important to give them all the opportunities and options that are available to them.” 

OUSD officials admire Paul Quinn’s work college model, where students hold jobs while attending school. Work colleges are a federal designation, and Paul Quinn was the first college in an urban area to adopt the model. The school holds corporate partnerships with companies like JP Morgan Chase, McDonalds, FedEx, the Dallas Mavericks, and more. If the school opens a campus in Oakland, college officials are eager to partner with Silicon Valley companies and others headquartered in Oakland and the Bay Area. 

Trinh added that there are similarities between Paul Quinn’s work college model and OUSD’s linked learning pathways, which offer students career education and help them to get internships and real-world experience in those fields while in high school. 

While HBCUs are not exclusively for Black students, they offer those students a familiar environment and a chance to learn alongside other Black students pursuing degrees, while being taught by Black professors and college leaders.

The primary way that OUSD students are exposed to HBCUs is through the annual Black College Expo. Traditionally, the expo has been held at McClymonds High School and features representatives from more than 100 historically black schools. Students from all over the school district visit with college officials, can receive scholarship and admission offers on the spot, and attend sessions about financial aid and career development. 

Although the pandemic has changed the format of the expo in recent years, it continues to draw students and their families eager to pursue higher education, said Adams, who also serves as the Northern California director of the Black College Expo. 

Adams and other stakeholders including Paul Quinn College officials, Oakland school district officials, and local education and church leaders who will be meeting in early May to plot out the feasibility of expanding Paul Quinn to Oakland. If an HBCU were to happen here, she said, it would draw not only local students, but others from the Western United States.

“It’s an exciting thing to have a school on the West Coast,” she said. “It’s not going to just be Oakland students. They’re going to come from Oregon, Washington, Southern California, Nevada. They’re going to come from everywhere.”

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.