Recent passage of the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act was a major milestone in American history, to be sure, for both health care and student loan reform but also for the $2.55 billion authorized for minority-serving institutions (MSIs) and the $2 billion competitive grant program established for the nation’s community colleges. MSIs and two-year institutions are indeed critical to achieving two national education priorities: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce development and seeing the nation once again lead in college completion rates globally.
The potential of MSIs, such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and community colleges in widening the STEM pipeline is vast. According to a 2008 report by the National Science Foundation, HBCUs educate a disproportionate number of Black men and women who go on to earn doctorates in STEM fields. Although the link between community colleges and doctorate production is not clear, many in the education community are looking to two-year institutions to help diversify STEM disciplines given the large number of minority students who enter postsecondary education at this level and the success of programs such as California’s Mathematics, Engineering, and Science Achievement (MESA). A recent American Association for the Advancement of Science symposium showcased MESA as the most successful transfer program for under-represented first-generation students in that state.
Something else these two sectors have in common, in addition to the fact that many MSIs are also two-year institutions, is their status—although not exclusively so in the case of MSIs—of low selectivity and open enrollment. Said differently, both sectors enroll students whose academic backgrounds and economic status may otherwise prevent them from attending college. Again, taking HBCUs as an example, of the 105 institutions designated as such by the U.S. Department of Education, 67 are deemed non-selective by The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. The completion rates at many MSIs and community colleges are notoriously low, and increasing them could go a long way in meeting the administration’s completion goals. What is more, the recent investment in both also means more resources for science and technology education and the minority students enrolled in STEM associate and bachelor degree programs. Given that Black, Hispanic, and Native Americans comprise just 10 percent of the national science and engineering workforce, the room for growth is beyond evident.
Let me be clear—I am not, nor do I encourage readers to let selective colleges and universities off the hook. The nation’s premier public and private institutions have a great responsibility to enroll, and more importantly to graduate, the nation’s under-represented youth. Yet, the momentum surrounding STEM education and college completion has revealed the need to invest in and examine the practices that lead to increased minority degree production by all sectors of higher education. Increased funding and other forms of investment in less selective and open-enrollment institutions indeed benefit STEM departments and their students, as does the current national focus on degree completion and scientific education; two policy areas that will hopefully outlast the current administration and become a national priority for decades to come.
Dr. Lorelle L. Espinosa is the director of policy and strategic initiatives at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based independent, nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world.