A core problem for research on minority-serving institutions (MSIs) is that they have been defined inconsistently. Through the IES-funded Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment (CAPSEE) at Teachers College, Columbia University, researcher Valerie Lundy-Wagner is leading two research projects that aim to provide the definitional and contextual information necessary for carrying out more comprehensive and rigorous research on MSIs and the ethnic/racial and low-income students they disproportionately serve.
We spoke with Valerie about her motivation for studying MSIs and the challenges that face MSI researchers.
My interest in MSIs was brought about by two experiences in graduate school. While in a master’s program at Stanford University, I met ten African American students pursuing doctoral degrees in one of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. I quickly learned that nearly all had one thing in common—they had attended a historically Black college or university (HBCU) for their undergraduate degree. I was intrigued by this and began to wonder about the extent to which their having attended an HBCU contributed to their undergraduate success and subsequent decision to pursue higher education beyond the baccalaureate.
MSIs also came up during my first year of the doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania where I was assigned to a qualitative research project focused on the contribution of MSIs to the preparation of African American women in STEM fields, and specifically at Spelman College (Atlanta, Georgia)—one of two all-women’s historically Black colleges. Based my master’s research, I had some ideas on the academic, psychological, financial, and structural reasons why students failed to persist in STEM; yet, until that project, I had not seen the numbers. In preparation for our site visit, I ran the descriptive statistics on HBCUs—in particular, their Black undergraduate enrollment but also the number and percentage of degrees they conferred to African American students each year by gender. The disproportionate contribution these institutions were making was surprising. Since then I’ve been interested in learning more about how these and other MSIs (e.g., Hispanic-serving institutions, tribal colleges and universities, predominately Black institutions, Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institutions) contribute to postsecondary access and completion by minority and low-income students. Now that I am working on this CAPSEE project, I am especially interested in understanding how these institutions might be meaningfully incorporated into higher education research and into policy interventions that will help close postsecondary attainment gaps by ethnicity/race.
How are MSIs important in the postsecondary system and why should researchers and policymakers be interested in research on MSIs?
Based on the extant research, MSIs are a critical part of the postsecondary system. According to some reports, these institutions comprise 20% of all colleges and universities, and on average, 70% of their undergraduate enrollment are ethnic/racial minority students. While poor K-12 preparation and achievement are significant factors in this reality, the fact that many MSIs are open-access institutions makes them an important site for students seeking a chance at increasing proficiency and pursuing higher education credentials. For researchers, we have the opportunity to better understand how these institutions are successfully transitioning underprepared students into high achievers, but also how their lack of resources may be contributing to less-than-ideal outcomes.
What are the greatest challenges in conducting research on MSIs?
There are at least two major challenges in conducting research on MSIs. First, the institutional status or designation of an MSI has not been consistent over time. What many people do not realize about MSIs is that some were established by the federal government to acknowledge and help address historical and ongoing inequality in access to education (e.g., historically Black college and universities) while others were established to address contemporary inequality (e.g., Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institutions). Second, and in a similar vein, MSIs have become a large and growing topic of higher education research, yet this body of work largely discusses institutions eligible for MSI designation and those that are actually funded under a federal program as though they are one and the same. In effect, including institutions simply eligible for MSI status with those that have deliberately made an effort to better support an ethnic/racial minority group by applying for and receiving MSI-specific funds convolutes the contribution of the federal MSI programs. This complicates a researcher’s ability to make relevant comparisons between institutions disproportionately serving minority students but also work seeking to compare MSIs to non-MSIs.
Your current IES-funded research project on MSIs utilizes data from NCES’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). What kind of questions about MSIs can IPEDS help answer?
IPEDS is an important and critical resource for postsecondary education research. In the descriptive analysis of this project, five annual IPEDS surveys are being used to help provide basic aggregate-level information on the characteristics of postsecondary institutions and the students they serve. Some of the questions IPEDs will help answer include, “How does percent Pell receipt among undergraduates vary among institutions eligible for and designated as MSIs? And how does this compare across MSI designations and to non-MSIs?” In effect, these questions seek to identify the extent to which there is a relationship between institutional characteristics and minority student outcomes among MSIs and non-MSIs. IPEDS will also provide me with an opportunity to clarify differences and similarities between MSIs and non-MSIs at the institution-level. This is necessary for subsequently developing more rigorous research on the effect of MSI status or funding on minority student outcomes.
Given the projected increases in postsecondary enrollment of minority students, do you see MSIs becoming more or less important to the postsecondary system in the future?
Yes. Despite the technical issues associated with identifying which set(s) of institutions are MSIs, the fact of the matter is that there are a growing number of institutions that are disproportionately educating students of color and low-income students. Given the gaps in postsecondary access and attainment by ethnic/racial minority students, stakeholders in research, policy, and postsecondary institutions must better understand the challenges and the mechanisms for success occurring at these institutions, as well as how successful initiatives and reforms supporting similar students at predominately White institutions could be brought to MSIs.
Interested in learning more about this topic? CAPSEE and the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania recently published On Their Own Terms: Two-Year Minority Serving Institutions, a report that looks at the role of two-year Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) in improving postsecondary access and degree completion for disadvantaged students in the United States.
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