As the pandemic pushes higher education to reinvent itself amid a racial reckoning, Virginia Union University (VUU), one of the country’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), aims to uplift marginalized communities through a new Workforce Development and Technical Training Initiative.
“More and more now, everybody needs a pathway to access generational wealth, and we believe this initiative will help do that, especially for those not interested in pursuing a four-year education,” said Dr. Hakim J. Lucas, president and CEO of VUU.
VUU’s two-year initiative will start in June 2022 and grant an associate’s degree or certification in specialized studies. Advanced Placement high school students and graduates can apply to complete an associate’s degree. Students can then choose to continue studying at VUU for a bachelor’s degree.
Dr. Terrell L. Strayhorn, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs as well as professor of urban education at VUU, said the initiative came about partially from responding to the pandemic.
“While pivoting online, we started hearing the demand of adult learners, of otherwise vulnerable populations, and of employers across industries,” said Strayhorn. “We’re really now seeing students’ decision-making is remarkably career-oriented. What the pandemic may have done is expose the vulnerability of us all, especially in the workforce.”
Strayhorn said this initiative can also be a pipeline to VUU while meeting the needs of students seeking more flexible learning pathways. He mentioned VUU not only offers a certificate but a master's degree in public health. Both programs tackle urban health disparity issues.
“We’re doing market studies before building the architecture for these programs, and that allows us to recruit new students who haven’t come to the university in the past,” said Strayhorn. “We’re not just filling enrollment gaps from the pandemic. We’re actually expanding enrollment, primarily in graduate education and workforce development.”
Gabe Horwitz, senior vice president for the economic program at Third Way, a public policy think tank, added that there have been growing calls across the country for workforce development programs in general.
“With shifts in the economy over the last couple of decades, there has been a bigger earnings premium for people who have different sources of education credentialing beyond high school,” said Horwitz. “As COVID hit and more people evaluated their careers, we started to see people seek out other learning opportunities, not just a four-year degree.”
In evaluating such alternative programs, Horwitz suggested tracking how many students complete an associate’s degree or certification once they start as well as their wage increases and job placements over time. The bottom line, he stressed, is making quality, alternative credentialing programs available to more people.
“No matter your race or ethnicity, no matter your socioeconomic status, we need to make sure these programs are available to everyone to help them get on a career path they want,” said Horwitz.
To Lucas, the Workforce Development Initiative goes back to VUU’s roots as an HBCU that first focused on training communities of color in trades after the Civil War.
“The everyday struggles of the pandemic once again showed us that so much has evolved in our world, but so many of the disparities stay the same," said Lucas. "The question for us is how do we position ourselves in a time where things have changed, but so much has stayed the same. So, we reached back into our bag and looked at a historical strategy of workforce training.”
Lucas said focusing on educating marginalized communities through such programs carries particular meaning.
“When you believe in using your mission as an organization to not just be socially responsible but a radical transformer, you can be a trusted community partner,” he said. “More than anything, the people who live in the margins have begun to look at VUU as a partner. That you’re not just coming in and taking our data, but you’ll come in and help us access generational wealth.”
Rebecca Kelliher can be reached at [email protected].