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Columbia University partners with HBCUs to fight lack of business diversity

Scholarship program with 10 schools pays for a master’s degree, internship and help finding Fortune 500 jobs

It’s no surprise that the lack of diversity in the professional workforce is a common problem.

A quick internet search will unearth countless studies confirming that women and minorities, especially African-Americans, are underrepresented across most industries. Although there are thousands of qualified African-Americans in all fields, many companies maintain that they are eager to hire African-Americans but candidates are hard to find.

It’s something that Jason Wingard, professor and dean of Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies, immediately noticed and still finds troubling. Wingard decided to turn the experience into a positive one for certain students from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) through a Columbia University scholarship program with a $100,000 value. For the first time this summer, Columbia is opening its doors to two students from each of the top 10 HBCUs as ranked by The Wall Street Journal.

The chosen students will get the opportunity to earn a one-year master’s degree from their choice of 40 programs of study and 14 areas of discipline. They’ll also receive access to industry mentors, career coaches and Columbia’s alumni network, followed by a paid summer internship and the possibility of a job offer from one of the program’s 11 Fortune 500 partners.

“As an African-American male myself, it’s disheartening to hear corporations say we can’t find qualified African-Americans to come and work at our companies,” Wingard said. “And I would say, well, there are plenty of African-Americans who are going to college, who are doing well in their studies, who are ripe candidates for what you’re looking for. The problem becomes either those companies don’t know where to look, or when they do know where to look, they’re not able to articulate why they are interested in this particular population and how they are adjusting their cultures to be responsive to the employees’ needs.”

Four years ago, 55.9 percent of employed black college graduates were underemployed or working in fields unrelated to their earned college degrees, up from 45 percent in 2007, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Working at the graduate school, Wingard has spent much of his time with CEOs and board members who have expressed the challenges they face while looking for qualified African-Americans.

“[CEOs] would say to me, ‘We’re having a really difficult time recruiting properly skilled African-Americans to come and work in our company,’ ” Wingard said. “And so, through that business development, that was sort of the genesis of this program.”

Wingard said it took a little over a year to develop the concept, meet with participating schools, engage mentors, sponsors and corporate partners, and solidify the services students may need during their transition to New York.

Wingard understands that the number of schools and students is limited, but he said the small size is by design: a trial run for the program, with plans to expand in the future.

“There are a lot of HBCUs and other schools that we could partner with to satisfy this objective, but to start we said, let’s start with the top 10 HBCUs as identified by The Wall Street Journal, and then let’s select two students each — and that’s a very small number,” Wingard said. “Some criticism may be why aren’t we doing more, but we want to confirm that this model works with that smaller population first.

“We’re working with the corporations not just on identifying students, but also what recruiting techniques they need, the value they have for diverse populations, how they are going to make support systems available in their companies to support this population of students, how they are going to retain them — not just hire them, but retain them and work them through the system so they advance their curriculum and careers in their company.”

Participating HBCUs

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.