Tom Joyner Venture Will Help Black Colleges Start Online Programs

Donna McWilliam, AP Photo

A company started by the radio host Tom Joyner is attempting to bring to online education the supportive atmosphere found on historically black campuses.
September 02, 2010

Tom Joyner, one of the country's most-visible philanthropic supporters of historically black colleges and universities, has founded a company to help those institutions develop distance-education programs—with a particular focus on allowing them to compete against for-profit colleges in enrolling minority students.

Mr. Joyner regularly highlights black colleges on his nationally syndicated radio broadcast, The Tom Joyner Morning Show, and has donated tens of millions of dollars to students of HBCU's through his Tom Joyner Foundation.

For-profit and online colleges attract "incredible numbers of African-American students" said Mr. Joyner's son, Thomas Jr., who stepped down as president of the foundation to become president of the new company, HBCUsOnline. "A lot of those enrollments are his listeners," the younger Mr. Joyner said in an interview on Thursday, and he believes many of those potential students would be better served by HBCU's, which have "a stronger legacy and history."

On its Web site, the company promises to provide an online version of the supportive environment that HBCU's try to foster on their campuses, and it makes some oblique and not-so-oblique references to criticisms that have been raised recently about the costs and recruiting tactics of for-profit colleges. "This program goes beyond simply enrolling you in classes and saddling you with debt, but offers you ongoing support systems from registration to graduation," the site proclaims.

In other sections, the site links to a Frontline documentary, "College Inc.," that criticized for-profit colleges, and warns, "Your investment in your online education is a serious decision. Don't be pressured into the wrong choice."

About 43 percent of the students at for-profit colleges are members of minority groups, and the University of Phoenix now leads all institutions in the number of bachelor's degrees awarded to African-Americans.

The target market for HBCUsOnline is adult African-American students, the younger Mr. Joyner said, adding that the market research the company has conducted indicates that many would be interested in attending an online college that has a brick-and-mortar campus and "a known history and heritage."

Asked about HBCUsOnline's portrayal of for-profit colleges, Harris N. Miller, president of the Career College Association, did not respond directly, saying only, "We welcome anyone who's going to bring more capacity to the higher-education system."

A Growing Field

Distance-education outsourcers are not new, and HBCUsOnline is hardly the only company looking to tap the HBCU market. Another venture, Education Online Services, led by the civil-rights activist Benjamin F Chavis Jr., is already working with some black colleges and is in discussions with the umbrella group for black colleges, the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, about forming a network of HBCU's online. The two-year-old company is a subsidiary of Marketlinkx Direct, an online marketing firm that works with hundreds of for-profit and nonprofit colleges.

A former high-ranking official in the Department of Education during the Bush Administration, Brian W. Jones, has also raised some venture-capital financing to form another company with a similar focus.

But the senior Mr. Joyner's entry into the arena, details of which will be released later this month in conjunction with a White House conference on HBCU's, has the potential to significantly alter the landscape. Along with his radio show, Reach Media, Mr. Joyner's company, includes the news and entertainment Web site BlackAmericaWeb, and puts on events and public-service programs which together reach millions of African-Americans and others.

HBCUsOnline plans to begin operations in January. Two of its top executives formerly worked for an outsourcing company called Higher Ed Holdings, including the chief academic officer, Gerald A. Heeger, who once ran online education for the University of Maryland University College.

Florida A&M University has already announced that it will participate in the venture and will initially offer online master's degrees in nursing, business, and pharmacy.

Mr. Chavis, whose company has already helped Morris Brown College establish its first online degree program, is working with Jackson State University on a program in early education that will begin later in September and has deals in the works with several more institutions. He said he's not fazed by the potential competition from the Joyner venture. "Our company wants the best for HBCU's," he said, and "there's a lot of room in the marketplace."

Worries About Execution

Not all the buzz around Mr. Joyner's venture has been glowing. Jarrett L. Carter Sr., executive director of the Center for HBCU Media Advocacy, recently warned in a blog post of the challenges the company will face in trying to replicate the HBCU experience in an online environment, and the financial challenges the institutions themselves will face in maintaining the support systems necessary for the programs to succeed. "Our historically black colleges and universities can't afford another 'great idea' song and dance with a 'poorly executed' record-scratched ending," he wrote.

Mr. Carter, who has worked for black colleges, said in an interview that he voiced the concern to be constructive. What he knows about the venture comes from the public hints Tom Joyner has provided over the past few months on his Web site and in some public appearances. (The younger Mr. Joyner's interview with The Chronicle was the first extensive discussion of the venture the company has given.)

"People already have trust in his brand," Mr. Carter said, but for many HBCU's, this is "a delicate time" financially and politically," so it's important that HBCUsOnline's plans are realistic. "This is a lot different from soliciting support for scholarships," said Mr. Carter. The HBCU's have a tradition, too, and companies like HBCUsOnline "have to be very careful that brand is not betrayed."

Mr. Joyner Jr., who, like his father, attended an HBCU (he went to Howard University, his father to Tuskegee) said he was aware of Mr. Carter's comments.

He said the company will use such techniques as social media, chat rooms, and live events to bring elements of black-college culture to online students. The company's plans for personalized counseling, which will begin when a prospective student inquires and carries through until they graduate, is also designed to help nurture students.

"We want to make them a living, breathing part of the tradition and heritage-rich HBCU," Mr. Joyner Jr. said.

Although both the company and the foundation will be active in the world of HBCU's, and Thomas Joyner Sr. is chairman of the company, Mr. Joyner Jr. said decisions about philanthropic support going to HBCU's would be separate from the company's business interest. He said he had no intent to "squander" his father's good reputation for short-term business gains.

As more and more HBCU's look to distance education via Mr. Joyner's company, Education Online Services, and other companies, officials at the black-colleges' association say one of the key challenges is to ensure that they can translate essential elements of the HBCU experience, particularly the student-support services for which the colleges are known, to an online environment.

The association is now working with online education experts from Carnegie Mellon University on a study that will focus on the issue.

"We do want to play in that space," said Lezli Baskerville, president of the association. But "we want to roll it out right, and we want to roll it out mindful of the lessons learned." Many colleges falter in online education if they lack adequate support systems for students,

As do the companies, she recognizes the potential for HBCU's in distance education. If you have friends or family who attended an HBCU, "you are aware of the rich traditions, and you'll want the same degree," the alumni connections, and some of the other benefits, she said. The challenge is "how do you capture the essence of that culture and the engagement online."