Career development partnerships with HBCUs on the rise

Career and workforce development programs at HBCUs are cropping up across the nation, as more organizations seek to invest in Black students and workers amid a national reckoning on race.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities have long been underfunded despite their pivotal role in generating social mobility for vulnerable populations of students. Now, nonprofit organizations and employers are increasing their investments in HBCUs.

Collaborative career preparation and workforce development programs, in particular, are cropping up across the nation, as more organizations seek to invest in Black students and workers. The initiatives focus on both students who have yet to launch their careers and working adults who need additional education and training to advance.

The big idea: These initiatives follow almost 18 months of national racial reckoning, with many corporations and higher education institutions reevaluating how they support all people of color and especially Black Americans. That work is taking many forms: a number of highly-publicized efforts are de-emphasizing the role of the bachelor’s degree in hiring, while others are designed to help more Black Americans who do earn degrees leverage them into upwardly-mobile careers.

Underemployment among Black graduates is 10 percentage points higher than it is among white graduates, and Black degree-holders are twice as likely to be unemployed. Many of the efforts to change that are centered on the country’s 100 HBCUs, which educate about 9 percent of all Black students and disproportionately serve first-generation and low-income students. Two thirds of students at HBCUs receive federal Pell Grants, compared to only a third of undergraduates nationally.

One career preparation effort, launched by Strada Education Network this month, is particularly broad—working with a cohort of 28 HBCUs on career development in its first year. The $25 million initiative is heavily focused on institutional collaboration, and plans to expand over the next eight years.

“We really want to move the needle in a meaningful way…with the hope of creating systemic change,” said Daryl Graham, senior vice president of philanthropy at Strada.

Work-based learning takes center stage

Last year Strada reached out to every HBCU in the country, and conducted a listening tour of a third of those institutions on ways to provide support. The organization then designed their grant program around what they heard. It’s the largest grant initiative like this in the foundation’s history. Graham said all HBCUs are welcome to join the initiative, and that the first round of funding focused on institutions that were prepared to work together, be open about their challenges, and build best practices.

“It is about all of us shaping this in a way we can improve the delivery to students,” Graham said. “We can strengthen it by working together.” 

During the listening tour, students expressed a need for mentorship and described challenges around unpaid internships. In response, Strada is providing grants to institutions to create mentorship programs and expand access to paid internships and other work-based learning experiences. More than 300 students are in the first cohort of those “Strada Scholars.”

Their experiences will be designed to help students build their professional networks, master essential career skills, and plan for and transition to graduate school or a job after graduation.

“Let’s take the financial barriers away and let’s create opportunity through this initiative, alongside the HBCU partners, so that more students have the ability to think about what the dream career for them is, and really focus on what things are going to be needed in order for them to do it,” Graham said.

Albany State University is one of 28 partners in a new Strada Education Network initiative. (V.T. Polywoda/Creative Commons)

On the ground: One partner is Albany State University in Georgia, helmed by President Marion Ross Fedrick since 2018. Their first Strada grant cohort has three students, and they plan on adding three more students to the program per year over the next six years.

Fedrick said that in the past the university has struggled to place students in internship positions because of where they are situated in southwest Georgia. Additionally, unpaid internships are not a feasible option for her Pell-eligible students. Fedrick said the partnership with Strada will provide additional support needed for these students to secure and succeed in internships.

“Most of our students work,” Fedrick said. “They don’t get the benefit of just going to school and learning and absorbing college life.” 

Building social capital

Strada is not alone in emphasizing mentorship and networking as essential components of career preparation. The critical role of social capital—the informal and professional connections people tap, and the opportunities and know-how that are shared through those networks—in navigating into and through a career has gotten much more attention of late.

The nonprofit Braven was an early provider of networking support, and for the past eight years has focused on helping low-income and first-generation college students transition from college to work. It currently serves about a thousand fellows a year through partnerships with National Louis University, Rutgers University-Newark, and San José State University—and it will be adding its first HBCU partner next month.

The theory: Braven’s approach is built on the idea that who a student knows is often as important as what a student knows.

“What we’ve started to see with the rise in the number of young people from first-generation backgrounds, from low-income backgrounds, going to college is that college alone is not enough,” said Aimée Eubanks Davis, founder and CEO of Braven. “There is this invisible social capital network around young people from high-income families.”

Students at a conference. (Jaime Lopes/Unsplash)

The new HBCU partnership, which isn’t public yet, will follow its tested model. Students will participate in a credit-bearing, semester-long course in their junior year that covers everything from how to build a resume and professional LinkedIn profile to what a performance-based task is. Students participate in small groups, and receive coaching, mentoring, and connections to professional networks.

Many of the students Braven works with don’t fully understand how the internship world works and what a beneficial internship looks like, Davis said. The program is careful not to guarantee an internship, but requires students to apply as part of their course requirements, which has led to high internship yields. 

This is important, Davis said, because if a college student graduates with two or more internships they increase their likelihood of earning a relatively high wage almost regardless of grade point average or major.

Braven is designed to amplify colleges’ existing resources. The institutions put in a fraction of what it costs to run the program, and Braven works with donor partners to cover the rest.

“Many great colleges and universities simply don’t have the infrastructure to help give students the experiences, the network, that they need to go out and actually really compete, including for internships,” said Davis.

Upskilling working learners

Guild Education tackles the education-and-career continuum from the other end—working with learners who are already in the workforce to connect them with education opportunities at HBCUs and other colleges. The platform, which manages the education benefit programs for companies like Chipotle, Target, and Walmart, added Paul Quinn College to its “Learning Marketplace” about a year ago. Before that, the company didn’t have any HBCUs on its roster of institutions, which now includes more than 100 colleges and universities.

Paul Freedman, president of the Learning Marketplace at Guild, said the primary appeal of the institution was its track record of providing quality credentials designed for working adults. 

Guild has since added Spelman and Morehouse Colleges, and announced this week that it is expanding with a new partnership with North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, the nation’s largest HBCU and a land-grant, doctoral research university. The partnership will bring new adult students to the university, and ideally will improve those learners’ career prospects.

“Education and upskilling can be a critical tool in moving the lever on creating more equitable opportunities for workers of all backgrounds,” Freedman said. “Workers are asking for learning opportunities, and they want their employers to invest in their future.” 

Extra lift: Guild provides its learners with student and career services, including mentorship, career coaching, program recommendations, and career advising and discovery. It also handles marketing and recruitment. Outside resources and support like that allow HBCUs to refocus their energy on other pressing initiatives, Freedman said.

We know that when learning partners are able to avoid spending a large amount on marketing to reach working adult learners they’re able to use their savings to invest in important areas like instruction and administration,” he said.

A recent study by Lumina Foundation on Walmart’s education program offered through Guild found that the program paid off for the company and improved participants’ career prospects. Roughly 17 percent of participants earned a promotion, a much higher share than among nonparticipants. Freedman also pointed to Chipotle’s experience: employees who participate in the education program, he said, are 7.5 times more likely to move into a management role within the company and, on average, see a 142-percent wage increase within one year of enrolling.

Ground left to cover

HBCUs have historically been underfunded, and have smaller endowments than similar predominantly-white institutions. With smaller endowments comes fewer resources, and Davis worries about their ability to provide top-of-the-line career preparation with those financial constraints. The new crop of partnerships like Braven’s and Strada’s HBCU network are a step in the right direction, she said, but there’s a long way to go in providing the necessary resources.

Collaboration among institutions can help stretch resources, Fedrick of Albany State said. A lot of the new money received by the university over the past year and a half was one-time funding that had to go to fix things that were broken, rather than to investments for the future. “HBCUs are doing phenomenal things with the dollars that they have,” Fedrick said.

But, she said, a collaborative approach like the Strada grant’s model could cost less and be more sustainable. Collaboration is “so much better” than competition, she said.

Parting thought: Fedrick said that the racial reckoning has made it more acceptable for donors to openly support HBCUs. But for that support to continue, leaders need to be more transparent about the role and potential of these specialized institutions.

“We have to be a little more courageous in partnerships,” she said.

The partnership with Strada, she said, is “a big step.” But she’s seen how initiatives can lose steam—and she hopes it doesn’t stop at this step. Her dream is to one day see an HBCU student in an internship at every company and in every industry.

Editor’s note: Strada Education Network is a funder of Work Shift. You can read our policy on editorial independence here.

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