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.