“In order to keep pace and add institutional versatility, we should be in this space,” said John Wilson Jr., executive director of the White House Initiative.

Part of the problem is money: Black colleges generally have small endowments and are largely tuition-dependent. Many don’t have the technological infrastructure to support online instruction, said Marybeth Gasman, an HBCU expert at the University of Pennsylvania.

The schools also have struggled with low retention and graduation rates, partly because of students’ financial backgrounds. Some officials worry that online student dropouts could further drag down those rates, possibly affecting accreditation, said Ezell Brown, CEO of Education Online Services, another company working to put black colleges online.

Also at issue is whether the nurturing campus environment often touted by black colleges can be replicated in cyberspace. To be successful online, the schools must offer strong student advising and a cultural component that somehow virtually conveys the campus ethos, Gasman said.

Dallas-based HBCUsOnline.com, which launched in September, aims to be a one-stop shop for browsing online degree programs at black schools. The site promises students personal guidance “from registration to graduation.”

Joyner Jr. said the company is targeting adult learners ages 25 and older—a huge market, considering that only 17.5 percent of blacks in that age group had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2008, according to the American Council on Education.

So far, Hampton and Texas Southern universities have signed on. Joyner Jr. expects to announce more partner schools in the coming months.

“Combining our marketing resources, we stand a much better chance of establishing a presence in the online market space,” Joyner Jr. said.

Hampton is actually a pioneer in online instruction, having launched its online program 10 years ago with about a dozen students. Today, it has about 400 and hopes to find more through HBCUsOnline.com, said Cassandra Herring, dean of the college of education and continuing studies.

“Certainly, having that national platform to talk about what we’re doing was a huge, huge benefit for us,” Herring said.

But some schools—both historically black and mainstream—choose not to be in cyberspace simply because “there hasn’t been a compelling case made to them that online [instruction] will serve the mission they’re trying to achieve,” said Jeff Seaman of the Sloan Consortium.

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