Before the public health crisis leveled the economy, employer-paid tuition programs were evolving from recruitment tools for college-educated candidates eyeing an MBA to a path for working-class employees to gain a foothold in higher education.

The recession could threaten that momentum if companies continue to shed jobs or curtail benefits. But Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College in Dallas, is making a calculated bet on the longevity of a movement that serves an often-ignored population of potential students: working adults.

On Wednesday, Paul Quinn will become the first historically Black college to partner with Guild Education, a Denver-based firm that works with companies such as Walmart and Lowe’s to provide education benefits to employees.

Paul Quinn is among dozens of colleges and universities, including Southern New Hampshire University and the University of Florida, offering credentials and degrees through Guild. Employees of the companies in the Guild network can access all of Paul Quinn’s courses and four-year-degree programs. The college has short-term credential programs and accelerated degrees designed for working adults.

“This is about unlocking the potential of America’s workforce,” Sorrell said. “It’s about moving people forward using higher education in a way that is accessible and doesn’t make people feel excluded. It’s giving people access to a tomorrow in a place that feels comfortable to them.”

Democratizing higher education and strengthening the ties to industry have come to define Sorrell’s tenure at Paul Quinn. Shortly after taking the helm in 2007, Sorrell cut tuition at the private college by 40 percent — from $23,800 to $14,275 — to make it possible for students to graduate with little debt.

He then required all students to work, first on campus and then in the community. The urban work-college model allows students to keep a portion of their pay and use the rest to defray the cost of attendance. Its success has attracted JPMorgan Chase, FedEx and others to sponsor internships. At the same time, Paul Quinn has rolled out an online, three-year-degree program and a three-to-six-month certificate program for workers trying to sharpen their skills at no more than $4,000.

“People need a way of getting back into the marketplace without spending 10 years to do so and getting into debt,” Sorrell said. “We have to innovate at the street level for the people who need this the most. I’m doing what HBCUs have always done … educating people who are underserved.”

The efforts to make higher education more accessible to a broader population made Paul Quinn a perfect fit for Guild, said Paul Freedman, president of the Learning Marketplace at Guild Education.

“A lot of people have created a false division between credentials and the traditional bachelor’s,” Freedman said. “Paul Quinn’s model proves it’s not either/or. It could be and or both. You can get a credential as a part of your college education, earn more income while still enrolled in college.”

With declining enrollment because of a shrinking population of high school graduates and pressure on tuition revenue, employer-paid tuition programs could be a lifeline for colleges and universities. But Freedman has found that few four-year schools are skilled at serving working adults.

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