There is a tendency in academia as well as in the media to compound all of the institution types that fall under the Minority Serving Institutions (MSI) designation into one category. Amalgamating all eight MSIs into one classification, fails to delineate the differences between these distinct institutions and can offer an erroneous image of these institutions and the students they serve.
According to the Rutgers Center for Minority Serving Institutions, there are eight institutions that are federally designated MSIs; they include Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), Asian American Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions (AANAPISIs), Predominantly Black Institutions (PBIs; not to be confused with HBCUs), Native American Non-Tribal Serving Institutions, Native Hawaiian-Serving Institutions, and Alaska Native-Serving Institutions. All of these institutions have been federally-designated by the Department of Education due to the number of racial/ethnic minorities as well as low-income students on their campuses. Not only have these institutions been designated as MSIs because of the composition of their student body, but the Department of Education has carved out federal dollars to support the capacity of these institutions to serve minoritized and financially-needy students.
Generally, researchers have noted the commonalities among the 700 institutions recognized as MSIs. For example, researchers have often shared that these institutions are low resourced and enroll 4.8 million students or 28% of undergraduate students in the U.S. higher education system. A large number of MSIs, such as HSIs and PBIs are two-year institutions and they graduate a high percentage of students of color at the undergraduate level, particularly in the area of STEM. While some MSIs, such as HBCUs and TCUs, were founded with the specific intent to provide access to higher education for certain demographic groups of minoritized students, the identities of other MSIs, such as HSIs, AANAPISIs, and PBIs, for example, are based on enrolling a specific percentage of low-income, minoritized students. It is important to note that contrary to the research published on MSIs, all MSIs are not the same. Yet national dialogue on institutions categorized as such tends to assert that all MSIs share the same characteristics. This fuels a false narrative about the institutional resources and capacity of some institutions recognized as MSIs.
The reality is that other than HBCUs and TCUs, all other MSIs are grouped as such because of their student population makeup. What this means is that institutions can move in and out of a designation dependent on their student body. If an institution is more intentional with their recruiting efforts of minoritized students, it can work to be recognized as an MSI and will be eligible to compete for federal funding by the Department of Education. Although one may argue that enrolling minoritized and low-income students is certainly a large effort that can take years to accomplish, it is important to also acknowledge that having such a designation can yield capital, and in many cases, capital with little measures in place to ensure these institutions are held accountable for supporting minoritized students. This temporal or transitory nature of the MSI designation means that across the board these institutions vary in terms of their resources prior to such designation.
Oftentimes, MSIs are labeled as under-resourced institutions. This, of course, is the case for many MSIs, but not the case for all. For example, University of Maryland, College Park, the flagship university for the state of Maryland, is classified as an MSI, an AANAPISI, to be exact. However, this institution has considerably more resources than Morgan State University, an urban public research HBCU in Baltimore, Maryland, and Trinity Washington University, a private PBI in Washington, D.C. These clear differences in the resources at each institution paints a portrait that is counter to much of the discussion on MSIs being in need of additional resources to best serve their student population. These institutions are also vastly different in their heritage and history. While the institutions referenced above are in close proximity, geographically, many of the MSIs across the country may differ depending on the state in which they are located and the state policies that govern them. It is also important to note that these institutions serve very different student populations who have distinct challenges and opportunities related to their identities. For example, an HSI, which serves large shares of Latinx students, varies in its programmatic approach and implementation when compared to PBIs, institutions that serve large shares of Black students. If we are to truly understand the divergence in these institutions, we must be more intentional of disaggregating the differences amongst MSIs.
As institutions begin to enroll more students of color, and as more and more first-generation and low-income students look to college as viable paths for postsecondary advancement, we must continue to explore how MSIs are serving their students. Furthermore, we cannot continue to assume that a designation and a student body that is largely underrepresented equates to an under-resourced institution that is working with limited resources in its scope to support students. Scholars, researchers, and reporters cannot continue to aggregate these institutions. As institutions shift in and out of these designations, we have to do the hard work of disentangling MSIs and work diligently to assess their capacity and intentionality to serve.
Brandy Jones is the associate director for communications and strategy at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Institute for Leadership, Equity, and Justice at the Rutgers Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Brandy is also a graduate student studying higher education at the University of Pennsylvania.
Dr. Robert T. Palmer is chair and associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Howard University.