Shaw President, Dr. Tashni-Ann Dubroy, oversees first graduation as president in 2016; Photo Credit: Shaw University

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What started as a one-time 26 percent drop in enrollment in Shaw University’s adult ed degree program in 2012, culminated in a 66 percent total drop by 2015, causing alarm throughout the historically black college’s administration.

But it also inspired action. When Shaw grad Dr. Tashni-Ann Dubroy (pictured above) took the helm of the downtown Raleigh university just over one year ago, she was determined to reverse these and other enrollment declines and to forge closer ties with the broader Triangle community.

She wanted to better train Shaw students for 21st century careers, and to meet the needs of Triangle employers looking for talent.

Her focus? Entrepreneurship, innovation, technology and establishing Shaw as a leader and partner in building a strong regional economy.

A pair of new partnerships with Capitol Broadcasting Co. (ExitEvent’s parent company) and American Underground exemplify the work Dubroy and her team at Shaw are doing. More will come once new campuses open in those companies’ buildings in Durham and Rocky Mount, curriculum changes start to happen and students begin to interact with entrepreneurs and businesses in the community.

Shaw University's Total CAPE Program Enrollment from 2011-2015
Shaw University's adult education degree program, CAPE, declined for four straight years; Data provided by Shaw University

But it’s not just the numbers Dubroy seeks to change. She hopes to change the students’ mindsets too. 

“We’d like our students to see that they can create things and walk out of Shaw with an idea or product in hand," she says. "This partnership will expose them to more innovation and more people who may share the same passion as they do.”

Shaw’s new EPIC leadership

Shaw’s declining enrollment figures might be slightly more pronounced, but the figures follow a national trend, in which total enrollment in U.S undergraduate institutions fell by four percentage points between 2010 and 2014.

The reasons for the national drop in enrollment in higher education institutions are a bit murky. But trends like declining government funding for public and private universities, rising tuition costs, fear of accruing debt, and fewer sustainable financing options coupled with a still not fully recovered economy seem to have discouraged young people and adult learners from enrolling in four-year degree programs.

Specifically for adult education, which typically targets military veterans, working professionals and adult learners, there’s more choice than ever before too. Private education options are plentiful, and there’s been a whole wave of nonaccredited and online training programs that prepare people for new careers without requiring a degree.

Shaw University CAPE Adult Ed Enrollment in Durham and Rocky Mount Campuses, 2011-2015
Shaw University CAPE Adult Ed Enrollment in Durham and Rocky Mount Campuses, 2011-2015; Data provided by Shaw University

Shaw’s CAPE (Center for Alternative Programs in Education) program has been around since 1994 and trained more than 4,000 people on eight campuses throughout the state. It’s a program Shaw is committed to restoring and growing again.

But first, Dubroy, who at age 35 holds a PhD in chemistry and an MBA, needed to start a culture change on the main campus.

Two months prior to taking office last year, Dubroy told WRAL, "Companies like Red Hat often overlook Shaw University and head over to Hillsborough Street (to N.C. State) for talent," "I can't say I blame them right now, because we haven't positioned ourselves as a strong competitor in the technology industry."

Dubroy began reversing course by infusing entrepreneurship and innovation into the university’s DNA through a new campuswide slogan (or hashtag for the social media savvy), EPIC an acronym in which E=Entrepreneurial thinking and Excellence, P=Presence, I=Innovative, and C=Customer Care.

Shaw University Promotes Integrates Entrepreneurship into New Motto, EPIC
Shaw University Promotes Integrates Entrepreneurship into New Motto, EPIC; Photo Credit: Shaw University

She also began fundraising and forming partnerships with community stakeholders and companies. Her efforts have paid off.

She tripled individual and corporate donations by December and early talks with Capitol Broadcasting and American Underground turned into full-fledged partnerships. Clarenda Stanley-Anderson, Shaw’s vice president for institutional advancement, says those partnerships are a “comprehensive partnership that is transformational, not transactional, with an organization who sees our vision.”

Enrollment is increasing again too. As the 2016-2017 school year begins today, 600 freshmen will descend on the campus, over 200 more students than last year’s freshman class.

Updating CAPE for 21st century 

But Dubroy wants to see the same phenomenon happen with the eight CAPE campuses scattered across the state. Shaw’s CAPE program is designed for adult learners who desire or whose circumstances necessitate a flexible schedule to earn a bachelor’s degree. Dubroy says most CAPE program participants enter with transfer credits and earn their degree in four to five years.

The program has graduated over 4000 students in its 22 years. Dubroy says with the sharp decline in enrollment and changing demographics of their students, she and her team began reevaluating every CAPE campus to ensure they were in the best location and focused in a way for students to thrive.

Traditionally, each campus offers the majors that best suit their local community’s needs. Most centers have business, psychology and sociology degrees, but Kannapolis, Rocky Mount and High Point also offer religion and philosophy, Durham and Raleigh, social work and liberal studies.

But with funding from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, campus curriculum will soon be reviewed and potentially revamped and modernized to better prepare Shaw students to participate in the 21st century economy.

The new partnership with American Underground began when Dubroy first met with CBC, American Underground’s parent company, last fall. But the decision to move the Durham and Rocky Mount campuses to CBC-owned buildings only developed over the past few months. American Underground’s chief strategist, Adam Klein says the talks moved very quickly and credited Dubroy and her team for their creativity and nimbleness in finalizing the arrangements and partnership with the American Underground team.

When classes began on Wednesday, both campuses were up and running at their new locations. Rocky Mount’s campus is now housed at CBC’s Rocky Mount Mills, a mixed-use development similar to the company’s American Tobacco Campus.

Shaw University's new space for CAPE students at American Underground's ATC Campus; Photo Credit: American Underground
Shaw University's new space for CAPE students at American Underground's ATC Campus; Photo Credit: American Underground

Shaw’s Durham CAPE campus was the second-most attended campus, but was based in a non-descript building in Research Triangle Park (RTP). Now classes will happen in the original American Underground on the American Tobacco Campus.

Although numbers may fluctuate for a few weeks, Dubroy expects roughly 80 students—a 166 percent increase from last year—to begin classes there this week.

Downtown Durham strategic for access to entrepreneurs

The move to downtown Durham is strategic because the students will be exposed to ATC-based companies like Bronto Software and Mckinney and will be fully integrated into the American Underground community complete with networking opportunities and events, says Klein.

The new programming and degree offerings will likely reflect the startups and companies nearby and could even be designed to help the CAPE students gain the skills they need to start their own company or work with one of the many hiring startups nearby.

It’s a strategic move for American Underground too.

Klein says over the past 18 month, his team has embraced the notion of becoming a “complete campus for entrepreneurs” where startups not only benefit from the space and exchange of ideas with other entrepreneurs but also from the assistance and expertise of organizations like CED, NC IDEA, and The Startup Factory—all who partner with and are housed in the American Underground community.

And while it counts Duke University as a founding partner and has supported The Iron Yard Code School through its rapid growth and expansion, the Shaw partnership introduces a yet-unreached population to the startup community.

CAPE students are typically working adults over the age of 23, some have families, some are military veterans, and most are minorities. Bringing these students to the American Underground campus adds new, diverse talent to the local pool. Klein also hopes the setting can inspire new entrepreneurial ventures from a primarily minority group of students.

While the partnership is still new and processes and strategies for getting students introduced to the startups are still being designed, Klein says he envisions collaborating with American Underground’s already strong network and job fair events like the Tech Jobs Under the Big Top.

Klein says the most exciting part of the partnership is the opportunity to work with an“outstanding visionary leader” and her team to together “plan for a more successful region.”

Dubroy, meanwhile, hopes the region’s startup community sees that, “Shaw University is getting its wings. We have turned the corner as far as our strategic direction is going and partnerships with AU lend credence to the fact that Shaw University is actually EPIC.”