The state of Illinois has been without a budget for nearly a year, as Republican Governor and private equity titan Bruce Rauner remains at odds with the state’s Democrat-controlled legislature. As reported last week by Marketplace, the absence of funding has many of Illinois’s 57 public universities and community colleges on the brink of collapse. Some of the larger among them are able to tap endowments and other sources to stay afloat, but the looming closure of schools like Chicago State University—a drastic measure one cannot imagine being easily reversed by any eventual provision of funding—signals a distinct threat to the minority communities frequently served by such smaller institutions. Even if larger schools could increase enrollments to absorb the students of shuttered colleges, to conceive of such a shift as merely a zero-sum reshuffling, or, worse, an efficiency-achieving shakeup, is to fundamentally misunderstand the challenges of twenty-first century higher education.
Marketplace quotes higher ed expert Clifton Conrad on the cultures and practices of minority-serving institutions like Chicago State, schools that have long been invisible across much of the landscape of higher education. Along with Marybeth Gasman, another leading scholar of higher education, Conrad is the author of Educating a Diverse Nation: Lessons from Minority-Serving Institutions, for which the pair conducted extensive studies of a dozen high-achieving MSIs across the country. As they explain in the book, we’ve passed the moment when providing equal access to educational opportunities hinges on getting diverse students through the door—they are coming. Rather, the difficulty “lies in providing students with access to institutions that understand and value their experiences and resources, challenging them with the obligation and the opportunity to learn what really matters to them, and getting them to a degree.”
In the following excerpt from Educating a Diverse Nation, Conrad and Gasman detail the missions of MSIs, and the methods they employ to meet the challenge of educating many whose needs are often overlooked by mainstream institutional models—a challenge greatly exacerbated by the kind of budget conflict that Illinois currently represents so extremely.
Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) are a diverse collection of colleges and universities. Although they continue to remain invisible to many both within and outside of higher education, MSIs—Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander–Serving Institutions (AANAPISIs)—have become an increasingly important part of American higher education, especially as a gateway to higher education for many traditionally underrepresented students across our country.
In 2011, degree-granting MSIs enrolled 3.6 million undergraduate students—one-quarter of all undergraduate students in the United States and a disproportionate percentage of students of color.
Designed with the needs of minority students at the forefront, MSIs provide culturally relevant opportunities for students who have historically been marginalized in our nation’s mainstream colleges and universities. In so doing, MSIs have called out, disrupted, and questioned the historical roles of race and class with respect to student access and success in higher education. As institutions that are relevant to the students who matriculate at them, their relevance finds expression in their missions, environments, programs, and practices.
The long-standing mission of MSIs has been to increase the capacity of higher education to serve students whose earlier educational experiences have been shaped by such life experiences as poverty, immigration, and life on reservations. In turn, MSIs have been designed to play a major developmental role: to provide a sound education and, in so doing, call attention to the barriers that communities of color face as they seek to participate in American social institutions as equals. In recent years, many MSIs have begun to play that role for communities other than the one for which they were originally designed.
MSIs span the sectors of higher education in the United States. Although minority students are more likely than other groups of students to attend public two-year colleges, MSIs are distributed across institutional types. Across the four major types of MSIs, HBCUs are most likely to be four-year and private institutions; HBCUs, HSIs, and AANAPISIs include several doctoral institutions; and all TCUs began as two-year community colleges.
The diversity of their institutional missions notwithstanding, MSIs share an overarching commitment to ensuring access to higher education and making college a meaningful experience for minority students. To begin with, their campuses are often cost-effective. With student bodies composed of substantial numbers of minority students, MSI campuses provide an option for students who consider racial and cultural identity a central dynamic in education. In identifying and engaging the educational aspirations and needs of the students they serve, MSIs are heavily focused on teaching and on the active involvement of faculty and staff members in student development both within and outside of class. Some MSIs place major emphasis on students’ self-determination of their pathways and overtly challenge conventional educational practices that exclude the students they are designed to serve.
Central to the shared mission of MSIs is a widely shared assumption about postsecondary education: not only can all students succeed, but faculty, staff, students, and surrounding communities share an obligation to see that all students are successful. This assumption grounds educational opportunity in two defining characteristics of MSIs. First, many minority students choose MSIs because they believe they will have a sense of belonging at college without sacrificing their cultural identity or their educational goals. Once at an MSI, minority students often find a range of opportunities that support their academic growth and racial identity development. For example, some MSIs reframe the college curriculum, such as offering an explicit mediation between non-Western and Western cultures. Many MSIs provide students with diverse community- and service-based learning opportunities and invite students to reflect on ways in which ongoing contact with their home community as well as their college experiences can enrich their education.
The second characteristic grounding educational opportunity at MSIs is an explicit focus on guiding minority students to obtaining degrees. Despite historically lower rates of funding and a commitment to serve those students who face significant challenges in completing their degrees, some MSIs still match or outperform comparable non-MSIs. The thorny issue of overall degree completion rates aside, MSIs work to assure that their graduates accrue the major benefits of a college education: higher earnings, access to additional higher education, access to the professions, and STEM career opportunities. Graduates from many public two-year MSIs find their way into local labor markets, and graduates of more selective four-year MSIs have a well-established history of moving on to graduate school and the professions.
In short, MSIs embrace educational relevance to minority students as their defining touchstone. They offer accredited, transferable college degrees that in many ways are indistinguishable from the degrees offered at majority institutions. At the same time, MSIs make explicit to historically marginalized students that attaining a degree does not at the same time require them to assimilate fully into a society that has often marginalized them.
Across institutional types, MSIs invest in creating inclusive and welcoming environments that are relevant to the needs of minority students. In many instances, students view MSIs as promoting racial self-development, academic development, and social opportunities. Although MSIs are designed for minority students, White students have often found them to be open and friendly environments with supportive faculty. More broadly, researchers have found MSIs to have inclusive climates and nurturing environments that are satisfying to students.
MSIs cultivate communities that call attention to race, local involvement, and the importance of actively promoting the success of minority students. Such communities are accompanied by the widely shared belief that MSIs must be relevant to all students, including students of color who come from poverty, and must be committed to hiring faculty and staff that reflect campus demographics. To that end, MSIs often take initiatives to involve faculty and staff members in designing curricular and cocurricular activities for specific groups of minority students. Not surprisingly, then, minority students often view MSIs as inclusive and empowering and, in turn, MSI students often arrange and pursue their college-going activities with an explicit concern for their peers’ success and persistence.
Programs and Practices
In concert with creating educationally relevant environments, MSIs develop programs and practices relevant to the minority students they serve. Reflecting their respective histories of promoting access and empowerment, MSIs have developed widely shared and distinctive understandings of student success, support services, and methods of outreach that support the entry of underrepresented students into higher education. More specifically, MSIs have long-standing commitments to providing supportive services, remedial education, and inclusive student affairs programs to serve students who have historically had inadequate preparation for college and often conflicted experiences in school.
In attending to the dynamics of race and ethnicity, MSIs develop academic and student support programs in ways that make understanding and managing those dynamics part of both the curriculum and the cocurriculum. For example, MSIs infuse the minority experience into the curriculum via programs that emphasize students developing as persons—academically and socially as well as emotionally and spiritually. More often than not, this emphasis on developing character includes a commitment to service learning and community service. MSIs also have a long history of serving as sites for researching and teaching subjects and traditions that are relevant to minority experiences in the United States and also for preserving and enriching the cultural traditions and practices of minority groups.
At the same time that MSIs seek to accelerate and support the academic growth and development of their students, they seek to build the social capital of students. Many MSIs offer a guided introduction to college and provide programs that help students identify and pursue their educational goals—from obtaining their degrees and/or certificates, to transferring to other institutions, to pursuing graduate education. MSI classrooms provide supportive learning climates that are free of many of the barriers minority students often encounter at majority institutions. Perhaps not surprisingly, scholars have found that the supportive academic environments of MSIs are related to higher student motivation and engagement, and that such climates foster community, enhance the quality of interaction among students, and strengthen interactions between faculty and staff. MSIs have also been found to offer opportunities for rigorous academic interaction between students and faculty—often with higher expectations than in majority institutions.
In addition to preparing students to be successful learners, MSIs provide opportunities to put students’ learning to use. Many MSIs provide students with opportunities to engage in community-centered research projects and to attend conferences and interact with scientists. And many MSIs provide undergraduate experiences that promote deep involvement in students’ home communities and prepare students to contribute within their communities through programs that are keyed to regional and group needs—programs that are staffed by faculty members who are committed to local and regional development. Not surprisingly, the opportunity to be involved with their communities often begins on campus in social networks that contribute to student learning, persistence, and retention.
Within the context of the overarching MSI mission, faculty members play a critical role in developing programs and practices relevant to minority students. Not only do many MSI faculty members come from the dominant minority group of the institution, but in some instances MSIs recruit faculty with nontraditional credentials consonant with their minority-serving missions. For the most part, MSI faculty members choose to work at institutions with an orientation to teaching and in many instances to the success of a specific group of students. And more often than not, faculty members view themselves first and foremost as teachers. Several decades of research, particularly at HBCUs, have found MSI faculty members not only to be encouraging of students, but committed and able to build relationships with students that help the latter to realize their potential and participate more actively in the institution. To that end, HBCU faculty members are often recruited and developed to have such an orientation, and faculty members at HSIs, AANAPISIs, and TCUs are increasingly coming to see their roles in terms of engaging the minority students who have chosen to come to their institutions.
While programs and practices at MSIs often express a widely shared mission, individual MSIs sometimes fall short of realizing their mission for several reasons. First, MSIs sometimes develop programs and practices with insufficient funding and place excessive reliance on fickle federal money. While MSIs provide minority students with access to higher education and strive to cultivate their success, these institutions are often more successful at promoting access than graduation, or better at promoting transfer readiness than successful transfer. Second, in those instances where institutions choose to adapt their educational programs to prepare their students to at once succeed in and challenge the dominant culture, such a position can paradoxically lead them to take an accommodationist stance. Thus, even when MSIs develop specific practices—such as dress codes or articulation agreements with regional Predominantly White Institutions—as bridges between cultures, these practices have the potential to narrow the engagement of the students MSIs seek to serve or impose restrictions on what and how MSI faculty can teach. In short, there is a growing awareness of the challenge of maintaining fidelity to the MSI mission both because the mission is often conflicted and because most MSIs have insufficient resources.