How HBCU Online Programs Are Reaching Underserved Students

By: Nicole Szopinski Feb 15, 2023

How HBCU Online Programs Are Reaching Underserved Students

Unlocking Educational Opportunities with Dr. Antoine Alston

As a minority student, feeling excluded can be tough – especially when there are disparities among students from different backgrounds. That’s why HBCUs are such incredible places for many students. HBCUs embrace the importance of diversity and create a welcoming and inclusive community.

Thanks to distance learning, those from underserved backgrounds now have the chance to get a socially enriched education without having to be physically present. HBCUs are creating unique learning experiences that allow students to still benefit from the social network offered by HBCUs while taking classes remotely. But there are challenges that can come with building community within online programs.

We spoke with Dr. Antoine Alston of North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University (NCAT) to find out how he tackled the challenges of establishing an online program while creating a student experience that values and celebrates diversity and inclusion. Dr. Alston is an HBCU alumnus. 4 Generations of his family have been through historically black land grant Agricultural universities, with his daughter following closely behind. This is Dr. Alston’s 23rd year at North Carolina A&T, and he has established 2 online programs. He knows a thing or two about engaging minority students, so we asked him to share his knowledge.

Overcoming Obstacles to Establish Effective Online Programs at HBCUs

Let’s think of how HBCUs are operating today despite being underfunded by over $2.7 trillion and not having the same stakeholders that other universities have, as discussed in a Forbes article from February 2022. Just like any other institution, they face issues that all online programs face. HBCUs also experience unique obstacles – from overcoming historical stereotypes to establishing legitimacy. Despite these challenges, these colleges and universities keep pushing forward and are making incredible progress in online programs.

How Dr. Alston Engaged a New Pool of Students in an Online Agricultural Program

Dr. Alston explains how NCAT, the largest land grant HBCU, responded to the challenge of converting their hands-on agricultural degree program into a digital environment. The first step was to figure out how best to do this.

It took the growing need for distance learning and a grant to get his program off the ground. And Dr. Alston realized he could respond to enrollment challenges by engaging a new pool of students from the local community college. Creating an avenue that allowed students with an agriculture-related background to transfer their degrees also helped strengthen enrollment numbers.

But in reality, there are so many opportunities within this field – from financial to power to educational. The agriculture industry’s employment numbers have grown by 3.1% from 2021 to 2022, and the number of minority graduates with undergraduate and graduate degrees in agriculture has increased, while the number of other demographic groups has declined slightly. This is a huge demographic to engage and serve.

Giving Students Cultural Understanding

HBCUs understand the role that social education courses provide and give students African American perspectives as a part of their general education. Not only does this give their students the cultural understanding needed to succeed, but it also instills in them a deeper sense of purpose and connection when taking part in their online program – making it easier to buy into the idea of really investing in their college experience.

Leveraging Strengths of HBCU Online Programs

HBCUs have a rich history of providing quality education to students of all backgrounds. Schools like North Carolina A&T harnessed their unique strengths to make their HBCU online programs more accessible, provide diverse faculty, foster a sense of belonging, and create great networking opportunities for their students. Dr. Alston noted that fostering a sense of belonging should be at the heart of these efforts.

“We have a certain pride about ourselves; we came into college knowing that we belonged there, and no one could tell us otherwise. We understood our backgrounds and why we were here.”

There’s an energy and shared enthusiasm that comes with being part of a close-knit community that is hard to replicate in any other social setting and surpasses locale.

Bringing this sense of community to an online program opens up the doors to a larger student population. Dr. Alston explains, “We bring in individuals from across the country and make sure they know our history, values, and the impact of our program. Regardless of their background, every student at an HBCU can benefit from the unique culture and opportunities our schools offer.”

Not to mention, offering an inclusive and equitable learning experience creates a better and more attractive higher ed environment, making marketing messaging more authentic.

Proactive Strategies that Every School Can Learn from HBCU Online Programs

Dr. Alston is a strong advocate of increasing enrollment in HBCU online programs and has several strategies to make it happen. Some strategies include:

  • Promote program literacy – “We strive to start early by introducing students to the college experience through our high school programs and agricultural teachers. We also work hard to educate guidance counselors and ag teachers so they can pass on their knowledge to students and promote our programs through various media. These secondary agricultural education programs are essential in encouraging enrollment.”
  • Promote Opportunities – Emphasize the many career pathways, advancement opportunities, and sources of compensation available. Emphasizing these aspects shows students that their hard work will be rewarded and encourages them to pursue higher education.
  • Have a Supportive Staff and Structure in Place – Ensure that staff and support systems are available to students around the clock. And have multiple means of communication- Zoom, email, phone, etc. This includes providing access to communication and answers to questions that working students might have, as well as offering patience and understanding to those who need it. Having a structure of continual care helps provide a better experience for all.
  • Offer flexibility – Understand that many students have other obligations and responsibilities. Deadlines should still be enforced, but be willing to work with students whenever possible and know that they may have other obligations.
  • Cost – Design tuition and financial aid structures to serve the needs of students. Programs that are more affordable due to fewer campus-based fees can be especially beneficial for those on a tight budget. Having such structures in place will go a long way toward helping students achieve their goals.
  • Train Faculty and Students – Institutions should ensure that their faculty are well-trained in distance learning pedagogy so that the quality of education being provided is up to standard. It is also important for students to be oriented on the online platforms they will be using, as this will help them navigate the course materials more easily. Providing such training and orientation to students can be hugely beneficial for their overall learning experience.
  • Equip Students with the Essentials – Dedicate a website to online students that include a list of services and resources such as library services, counseling, and tutoring. This can help ensure that online learners are well-informed about the support available to them during their studies.

By embracing diversity and inclusion, HBCUs have been able to give underserved students unique learning experiences through distance learning and create a sense of socialization and pride. This strategy has been incredibly successful, with an increasing number of applications for admission without any sacrifice in quality.

EDDY is here to help HBCUs continue to be important and valuable members of the higher ed landscape and help all schools tap into potential minority student pools. Contact our expert team of marketing and enrollment management professionals today to learn more!