Forum: Minority-serving Campuses Urged to Tout Their Success

WASHINGTON— At a policy forum organized to have minority-serving institutions (MSI) share their success stories with policymakers and education access advocates, the Obama administration’s top official for federal initiatives with historically Black schools on Thursday urged MSI leaders to broaden their focus on educating policymakers about their record of achievement. 

 For too long MSIs have cajoled Congress with the cautious violin-playing they hoped would inspire funding, said Dr. John Silvanus Wilson, executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, during the “What the Higher Education Community Can Learn from Minority-serving Institutions” forum sponsored by the Lumina Foundation and Education Sector, a Washington-based independent education policy think tank.

 But it’s time to bust out the trumpets: “We have to tell our story better,” Wilson said about MSIs, which grant degrees to a majority of students of color yet are chronically underfunded.

 Too often, Wilson said, MSIs have been overlooked as schools where pedagogical innovation is taking place because of the ignorance associated with their brand. Though the Obama administration has elevated the stature of these institutions with historic funding and attention, he said MSIs can take a louder, more prominent space in higher education. 

 “We are not asking for this investment because we want [the government] to do the right thing, this is about the future of this nation,” Wilson said, adding the strength and security of the country should be part of the argument for increased funding. “We are moving from plaintiff to partner.”

 The money is justified because MSIs have devised the best practices for the nation’s most vulnerable groups for more than a century, forum panelists said, the same population that will comprise the bulk of the nation’s college-age community

 “We don’t think of MSIs as trendsetters, but they are ahead of the curve for what our higher education system will look like,” said Deborah Santiago, vice president for policy and research at nonprofit, advocacy organization Excelencia in Education. “It behooves us to stop looking at these institutions from a deficit perspective.”

 Speakers during the policy forum said mainstream higher education should look to MSIs to learn about minority student achievement. Frank L. Matthews, publisher of Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, moderated Thursday’s discussion.

 Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) produce 20 percent and 50 percent, respectively, of Black and Latino undergraduate degrees. Tribal colleges confer a large number of degrees granted to American Indians, approximately 7 percent in 2006-07, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

 Their mission to enroll, retain and graduate minority students helps MSIs tailor their programs to the collective and individual success of these groups, said Dr. Valerie Wilson, associate provost and director of institutional diversity at Brown Univer sity.

 “One of their strengths is they take students from where they are and take them to where they need to be,” Valerie Wilson said, adding Brown, an Ivy League institution, has a long-standing relationship with Tougaloo College, a Mississippi HBCU.

 Lacey Leegwater, the director of programs and planning at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said there are few opportunities for large public universities to engage MSIs. She cited Tribal Colleges for their innovative pedagogical practices that use native languages to teach students. 

 Santiago said creating a repository of data and information about programs—like first-year experiential programs, learning communities and project-based learning — that have demonstrated results for students of color will connect majority institutions with minority ones.

 “If you look at HBCUS and the great work they’ve done in 100 years, you need to tell the story so people see the benefit of what it has done to make society better,” said Dr. Charles Smith, vice president for student affairs at historically Black South Carolina State University. “They just see the government throwing money into these schools.”

 Though funding has dropped off 20 percent since former President Jimmy Carter established the White House Initiative for HBCUs, Wilson said recasting the message from a moral argument to an imperative will adjust the way MSIs are funded and recognized.