Diversifying our STEM Workforce

Ryan Kelsey

Ryan Kelsey

STEM (Science, Technology, Education, and Mathematics) education is all the rage. The President (in his State of the Union speeches) and the First Lady (most recently at the Working Families Summit) talk about it regularly. Reports on the importance of STEM for our country are published every month by leading think tanks, economists, and other organizations – my favorite from this month is from Jonathan Rothwell at the Brookings Institution, in which he discusses the lengthy vacancies experienced by companies trying to fill STEM jobs, due in part to the difficulty of finding qualified applicants.

One topic missing from the national spotlight is the need to diversify the STEM workforce. In order to meet the needs of our country’s global competitive edge, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology reports that the U.S. needs to produce another 1 million** STEM graduates beyond current rates. To make that sizeable increase a reality, we will need a much more diverse set of STEM graduates than we currently produce. Today, less than 10% of STEM professions are filled by non-white Americans. It is worth noting that we would need to triple that percentage to match the demographic makeup of our citizenry, but even to meet the Council’s goal of 1 million will require a huge shift to expand STEM opportunities to more underrepresented students. Minority students present perhaps the largest untapped population of STEM graduates, and drawing on that reserve is a crucial strategy to reaching the United States’ full potential, since minority students on many campuses complete STEM degrees at less than half the rate of their white counterparts.

Why don’t we have more STEM graduates of color? It’s not a lack of interest – research clearly shows that about 1 in 3 students, regardless of race, has an interest in getting a degree in a STEM field, and that has been true for years.

Is it aptitude or preparedness? Hardly. And this is where Minority-Serving Institutions come in. For example, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) were developed to nurture Black student success, and they have been particularly effective in STEM fields. According to National Science Foundation statistics, between 2006 and 2010, the list of 20 schools that graduated the majority of Black students in STEM fields included 10 HBCUs. Across sub-fields, HBCUs are equally or significantly stronger in awarding degrees to Black students, especially considering that HBCUs make up less than 3% of U.S. postsecondary institutions. For instance, of the bachelor degrees in mathematics and statistics awarded to Blacks in 2010, 32.5% of them were awarded by HBCUs; in the physical sciences, 36.6%. These figures suggest that STEM-related teaching and academic support practices at HBCUs are more effective than those at other schools for producing Black graduates. And HBCUs do this work much more efficiently than their Predominantly White Institution counterparts – operating with far less resources in today’s current budget climate for education and often with less selective admissions criteria.

These accomplishments need to be celebrated and shared with other types of institutions, particularly those that are experiencing growth in minority enrollment and are struggling to keep those students from diverting out of STEM (see what Penn’s Center is doing along these lines with support from the Helmsley Charitable Trust).

What are some of the chief causes for students leaving STEM?  The number one cited concern is poor teaching quality in the foundational STEM ‘gateway’ (or some might say ‘gatekeeper’) courses.  Beyond that, insufficient wrap-around supports such as advising, course sequencing, and research opportunities hinder students’ ability to see the relevance of material taught in foundational courses to real-world problems and its application in professional science and technology careers.

Many first-generation college students with an interest in STEM have a one-track mind for medical school. If they fall off that track for some reason, they quite often walk away from STEM and, in some cases, drop out of college entirely. This is a missed opportunity for many students and for the country given recent labor market trends, which show whole sectors of middle-skill STEM jobs waiting for students who pursue fields in IT (see Thai-Huy Nguyen’s post about computing), energy, and health technologies, to name a few.

So what can we do about it? The Helmsley Charitable Trust is attempting to build some of this awareness through initiatives such as AAC&U’s TIDES program with Project Kaleidoscope, involving a mix of MSIs and PWIs, which aspires to attract and retain students in Computer Science and IT through professional development for faculty on culturally inclusive teaching practices.

We are also working with large state systems on STEM undergraduate educational reforms, including an active RFP process with the California State University system, which contains 17 MSIs and has one of the largest system-wide enrollments of minority students in the country.

But this is not about any one foundation or campus. There are several foundations and federal agencies interested in supporting the excellent STEM education work of all types of institutions – and we need Minority Serving Institutions to show us all how to help more students of color get STEM credentials. Those students and their families will benefit from better employment opportunities and the United States economy will grow as a result, which improves everyone’s life.

Ryan Kelsey is a Program Officer for the Education Program at the Helmsley Charitable Trust where he primarily focuses on national work in undergraduate STEM education.

**Rothwell would say the number is even higher if you count a broader set of professions as STEM-related, see the Hidden STEM Economy for more.

Programming: A Mark of Inequality?

Thai-Huy P. Nguyen

Thai-Huy P. Nguyen

Demand for programmers in varying sectors and positions are growing, and this trend does not appear to be slowing down. In fact, according to U.S. News & World Report, which cited the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment growth forsoftware developers and computer systems analysts will jump 22.8% and 24.5% between 2012 and 2022, respectively. But who will fill these positions? Considering the current conditions of our K-12 system, what type of students are expected to benefit from a technologically-driven economy? Who will be left behind?

On June 16, 2014, TIME’s writer, Tim Bajarin, published an on-line piece (“Why Basic Coding Should be a Mandatory Class in Junior High“) on the importance of incorporating basic coding in the K-12 curriculum. He argues that more and more, technology in all of its forms, has become a formidable and growing presence in our daily lives–transforming (and in some cases, improving) the way we live and shaping the future employment opportunities for our children. Bajarin suggests that if schools do not incorporate basic programming into the core curriculum, thereby providing students with a fundamental platform to build on and advance their understanding of technology, they risk graduating students with insufficient skills. In other words, learning to program and understanding its value to our lives is crucial to taking advantage of, or benefitting from, an economy that will, sooner enough, judge you on your ease and ability to operate in a work environment that is heavily managed by (constantly) new devices and software. Put simply, a child’s opportunities will be increasingly dependent on her degree of technological literacy.

As someone who spent the majority of his childhood in the Silicon ValIey, and witnessed the awesome social and economic growth of my local economy, I wholeheartedly agree with Bajarin. Students, today, should be exposed to the basics of programming early on so that they, at the very least, remain relevant and prepared to benefit from the opportunities of tomorrow. However, as a first-generation college student, raised by a single-mother, I also witnessed a quite disturbing pattern of growing inequality. Silicon Valley’s corporate elite and the minions that followed in their footsteps were primarily White and male.

According to the most recent data from the National Science Foundation, Blacks make up 6% of all computer scientists, Hispanics/Latinos at 5% and Native Americans at less than 0.1%, whereas Whites make 68% of this population. These data mirror the persistent academic underachievement of minorities in our school system. We also cannot ignore the paltry presence of women in the sciences. Although college enrollment and degree attainment have increased for women across higher education, they only make up thirty one percent of total computer scientists in the country. Given that “21% of those who took the AP computer science exam in 2011 were female and only 29 of the test takers nationwide that year were black–less than 1% of the total,” according to Yasmin Kafai and Quinn Burke, increased female and racial minority representation in the workforce in the near future seems highly unlikely. With such glaring disparities in occupational achievement by race and gender, the potential to succeed in this new economy represents a marker of grave inequality.

Ensuring that all students have the chance to benefit from a technologically-driven economy, we must push for greater technological literacy–especially in the form of basic programming–and remember that such effort must take in account those very students who are less likely to be enrolled in schools that have the infrastructure to incorporate new curriculum and hire the qualified teachers to implement it. In order to do so, we must also be wary of the demands of the for-profit sector of the economy for these professionals that will likely constrain all but the most affluent schools in the nation. But if we are to prepare all students for a fast paced world, one that is imbued with boundless and unpredictable innovation, we must consider how we are to provide them with the knowledge and tools to hold on.

For less advantageous students, exposure to basic programming early on in their education can matter a great deal more for them and their families’ future. Without it, we risk leaving behind a generation of students susceptible to an economy that will leave no room for them or their dreams.

Thai-Huy P. Nguyen is a Ph.D. candidate in higher education at PennGSE and a research assistant at Penn’s CMSIs. 

This article was jointly published with the Huffington Post on Tuesday, June 24th, 2014. 

Student Reflection: Memories from Morehouse

Desmond Diggs

Desmond Diggs

Morehouse College has been the breeding ground for some of the most pivotal African American figures in American history. When the time came for me to apply to college, I filed a single application – early decision. There was no other place in the world that I would have rather spent my undergraduate years. I remember the first time I stood at the feet of the Martin Luther King. Jr. statue in front of the chapel that is named in his honor. I looked up at the bronze figure of this giant of a man and dreamed of what my experience might look like. I never imagined, as I looked up to the man my parents saw fit to name me after, that in that very same chapel I would meet Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former Mayor Andrew Young, or Dr. David Satcher. I couldn’t have fathomed that on those very steps I would have the opportunity to share my initiation into Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated or to speak in the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church on national television, or even to be mentored by Christine King Farris. Though my experience was rich, l hardly believe it was atypical. It is often said;  “you can always tell a Morehouse Man, but you can’t tell him much else.” When it comes to Mother Morehouse, I have yet to hear an argument that has made me consider that I would have been better served by another institution. However, given the present challenges of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, I wonder how many other young men and women will be able to leave their respective institutions with such fond memories.

Morehouse, like nearly all of our HBCUs, finds itself in a difficult position. Unexpected policy changes mandated by the federal government have jeopardized loan eligibility for many students and families. Such changes have disproportionately affected the “forty-six percent of students at historically black colleges [who] come from families with incomes lower than $34,000” (UNCF). In just his first year, President John Wilson C ’75 recently terminated 70 members of the faculty and closed a residence hall in an effort to address severe budget shortfalls.

Despite the present challenges, I still believe that Morehouse is the right place for the betterment of young men. Morehouse is a place where 500 young black men are bestowed their Bachelor’s degrees annually, while targeting first generation college students and those with limited access. Morehouse, like all HBCUs, holds a special place in the African-American narrative and in the greater narrative of the United States.

Morehouse men must respond to these hurdles and, in doing so, they must openly acknowledge that they cannot do it alone. There is a role for each Historically Black College and University—as well as other Minority Serving Institutions—in meeting their collective goal to educate those students who been left out. The survival of these colleges and universities and their ability to effectively shape our society will depend on new levels of coordination, cooperation, and resource-sharing that will bolster the mission of each. The Morehouse Man of tomorrow, as well as the illustrious men and women who will be the torchbearers of their respective MSIs, will no doubt find themselves at the right place, at the right time. If they are wise, they will also find a means to empower one another to new heights and recognize that what is good for the few is good for the whole.

Desmond Diggs is a graduate student in the International Education Development Program at Penn’s Graduate School of Education. He is also a Wharton Social Impact Fellow and the founder of Teach For Liberia, Incorporated, a teacher recruitment initiative aimed at recruiting talented teachers to bolster the fledgling education system in post-conflict Liberia. His research interests include, development and post-conflict economics, economics of education, and ICT as tools for development. 

The Role of Latino/as in Achieving the 2020 National Degree Attainment Goal

Andrés Castro Samayoa, Kerry Madden & Karla Silva

Andrés Castro Samayoa, Kerry Madden & Karla Silva

A recent report by Excelencia in Education reveals the critical role that Latino/as play in achieving Obama’s goal to become the nation with the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020.  The reports states that, in order to achieve this goal, 5.5 million more Latino/as need to earn a degree by 2020.

Latino/a Youth
Deborah Santiago* and Emily Galdeano Calderón, the report’s authors, highlight how Latino/as account for a substantial segment of the nation’s younger population, thus requiring important consideration from institutions and policymakers invested in making positive inroads towards improving the nation’s degree attainment. For example, the report states that the median age for Latino/as is 27, whereas the median age for Whites is 42. Similarly, Latino/a youth represents 22% of the nation’s K-12 population. To be able to work towards Obama’s goal, it is important that initiatives take into account Latino/as’ performance throughout the entire educational pipeline, from K-12 through college.

Measuring Latino/a Success
In addition to Latino/as’ representation amongst U.S. youth, the report provides three metrics to track the closing equity gap in college completion: graduation rates for first-time, full-time first-years; completion per 100 full-time equivalent students; and completions relative to the population in need. Across these metrics, Latino/as lag behind between 4-9% when compared to Whites. As their report states, “none of these measures capture the entire ‘story’ of equity in degree completion,” yet, by providing different metrics, Santiago and Calderón remind us that policymakers and institutional leaders cannot rely on a sole metric to gain a definitive panorama of the complex educational landscape in this country.  Nor can increasing the critical mass of Latino/as in higher education be sufficient to reach Obama’s outlined goals.  It is clear that if the United States intends to reach this educational benchmark, an educational model mindful of Latinos/as’ specific needs must be adopted.

Questioning the role of for-profit institutions
Unsurprisingly, the report’s data reiterates what many of us know: Texas, Florida, and California are key states in educating Latino/as given their large Latino/a populations. All of the institutions conferring the most bachelor’s and/or associate’s degrees to Latino/as are found in one of these three states.  The University of Phoenix stands out as the sole for-profit institution in the midst of these three states’ public institutions’ accomplishments.  Conferring over 2,500 Bachelor’s and over 2,400 Associates to Hispanics, the University of Phoenix is one of the Top 5 institutions conferring degrees to Hispanics. Surprisingly, these numbers represent less than 10% of the total degrees conferred by the University of Phoenix. Although this institution’s conferral of degrees makes a contribution to the nation’s aspiration to increase the proportion of college graduates, one must wonder whether institutions like the University of Phoenix are doing a disservice to its students given that
over a quarter of its graduates default less than three years after they begin repaying their loans. 

Excelencia in Education’s report reiterates the importance of race-sensitive approaches to ensuring the nation’s success in achieving Obama’s 2020 goals. At the same time, their data invites us to consider whether obtaining a degree necessarily means that these students are equipped for success. If a for-profit institution that disproportionately contribute to the nation’s student debt becomes one of the primary providers of degrees to Hispanics, it is evidence that we have a long road ahead before achieving sustainable financial and social prosperity for Latino/a graduates. Merely providing access to college for Latino/a students is not enough:  students need the resources and support to both complete their degrees and aspire to a life that is unhindered by debilitating debt after graduation. Ensuring that these concerns are also part of the conversation is critical if we aim to fully achieve Obama’s 2020 goal.

*Deborah Santiago is a member of the Penn Center’s For Minority Serving Institutions’ Advisory Board.

Andrés Castro Samayoa is a research assistant at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions and Ph.D. student in higher education at Penn’s Graduate School of Education. Kerry Madden received her Master’s Degree in higher education from Penn’s Graduate School of Education in Spring 2014. Karla Silva received her Master’s Degree in higher education from Penn’s Graduate School of Education in Spring 2014 and was also a research assistant at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. 

Moving North Carolina’s HBCUs from the Back of the Bus to the Front

Marybeth Gasman

Marybeth Gasman

Here’s a little known fact: if you are trying to reduce your state’s higher education appropriations, and you immediately look to the Historically Black Colleges and Universities in your state as places to cut or eliminate, that’s the definition of systemic racism.

On May 29th, 2014, the North Carolina senate debated a plan that would require the Board of Governors of The University of North Carolina System to study “the feasibility of dissolving any constituent institution whose fall full-time equivalent student enrollment declined by more than twenty percent (20%) between the 2010-2011 fiscal year and the 2013-2014 fiscal year” and to develop a plan for its dissolution. One of the state’s HBCUs – Elizabeth City State University – was on the potential chopping block due to recent drops in enrollment until May 30th when the Senate changed its mind due to outrage.

This proposal was the latest effort by Republican leaders to cut costs across the UNC system. In 2013, Governor Pat McCrory suggested merging or closing HBCU campuses as well as eliminating academic programs to cut spending in the state. McCrory angered HBCU leaders and alumni who worried that this talk was the beginning of a slippery slope ending in the closing of North Carolina’s HBCUs – institutions that have disproportionately educated low-income, and often underprepared students.

Along with William Boland, I published a report in April 2014 that included data on the performance and funding of North Carolina’s HBCUs.  We found, using both state and federal data, that North Carolina’s five public HBCUs awarded 3,706 degrees to African American students. This was far more than the total amount for all Predominantly White Institutions in the state (2,507). North Carolina’s five public HBCUs conferred 60% of bachelor’s degrees from public institutions to African Americans in the state. Given the very important role that these public HBCUs play, why would you eliminate one of them? Moreover, all four-year public institutions experienced enrollment gains between 2001 and 2011 in North Carolina. Interestingly, overall HBCU enrollment grew by 42%, compared to 27% at Predominately White Institutions.  The Black student population, in particular, increased by 39% in North Carolina HBCUs. Once again, given the important role that HBCUs are playing, why would you suggest eliminating one of them?

Our report also found that in North Carolina per full time enrolled (FTE) student funding is revelatory for detecting discrepancies in funding levels. Though the state’s HBCUs enjoy higher funding levels than HBCUs in Alabama, Louisiana, or Mississippi, the highest per FTE HBCU (Winston-Salem University at $10,618 in 2011), is still nearly half that of UNC Chapel Hill ($17,992) and North Carolina State University ($15,558).  How are North Carolina’s HBCUs supposed to compete in terms of enrollment, retention, and graduation, when they are not given a level playing field on which to play?

Rather than consider eliminating an institution that has at the heart of its mission the education of low-income, African American students, why not invest wholeheartedly in this institution and all of North Carolina’s HBCUs and abolish historic and current discrimination in state funding?  I think that somehow the legislators of North Carolina have forgotten what their constituents look like; 35% of the state’s citizens are people of color and that percentage is growing rapidly.  Moreover, it doesn’t seem that the legislators are listening to the radio, watching the news, or reading a newspaper – the United States is on it’s way to becoming a majority minority.  States such as North Carolina should step up and be out in front when it comes to educating racial and ethnic minorities and supporting the institutions that do the lion’s share of that work rather than standing at the back of the line, rather than standing at the back of the line.

Marybeth Gasman is a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and director of the Center for Minority Serving Institutions (CMSIs). 

Undermatching and Overreaching

Michael Sorrell

Michael Sorrell

This blog, while inspired by Paul Tough’s recent article in the New York Times, is really in response to the growing chorus of people lamenting over so-called “undermatching” in higher education.  Undermatching is the latest higher education cause du jour.  It is based upon the idea that high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds are being ill-served by matriculating at less prestigious colleges and universities and therefore, should scale up and attend more celebrated ones.  Undermatching advocates, who coincidentally all seem to either be employed by or graduated from these more celebrated colleges and universities, believe that if these bright students would opt for better schools, their lives will be immeasurably improved.

There are innumerable flaws in the undermatching argument.  However, this article is not about exposing those deficiencies or questioning the sincerity of this new fascination with economically deprived smart students.  Rather, as the president of one of those colleges that allegedly does irreparable harm to students (which is so insulting a charge that it merits a column itself), I have decided to venture in another direction and offer my uptown peers some friendly advice on how to succeed in the land of under-resourced students.

As is often the case when people attempt to start revolutions from above, the current school of thought completely misses the root of the problem. As Tough’s article highlights, when about a quarter of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution manage to collect a bachelor’s degree by age 24 and almost 90 percent of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile finish their degrees by that age, the issue is not where smart students are opting to attend college. The reality that too few people want to admit is that family wealth (or lack thereof) matters when it comes to college completion.

Therefore, in the interest of redirecting this fledgling revolution, I have channeled Occam’s Razor and created a simplified list of tenets to guide my medallion friends as they chart the new, unfamiliar terrain of under-resourced communities. These principles are based on the premise that you cannot lead people you do not love and you certainly should not educate students whom you do not know:

  1. Recruit under-resourced men and women as students the same way your coaches recruit them as athletes. Coaches are masterful at immersing themselves in the lives of their star recruits by cultivating relationships with the athlete-student’s parents, significant others, favorite teachers, and other key influencers. In order to help students from under-resourced communities excel on your campuses, someone from your institution better have the ability to access such relationships. Doing so will determine whether the student survives their first speed bump on your campus.
  2. You are not just their college; you are now their surrogate parent.  Under-resourced communities are rife with failing and dying institutions. Perhaps none more so than the two parent household.  In many instances, the only healthy environment a student may see comes from their high school. In the absence of stable family lives, high school principals, counselors, and teachers become surrogate mothers and fathers.  Therefore, if your staff thinks their jobs are solely to ensure these students master academic subject matter, you have already failed them.  You will need to establish a robust support system that includes providing academic, emotional, and financial resources when necessary.
  3. Say good-bye to your U.S. News & World Report ranking.  One of the reasons why less prestigious schools do not fare well in these rankings is we understand that we cannot serve two masters. If given a choice between a ranking and taking a chance on helping young men and women change their lives forever, we will always choose the latter.  When the rubber meets the road, which will you choose?
  4. Be sincere. Real recognizes real.  If you do not know what this means, find someone who does – quickly.

By elevating undermatching into the national consciousness, you have signaled to scores of under-resourced students that your colleges and universities will properly care for them.  Successfully integrating them into your affluent environments will require a complete cultural, philosophical, and pedagogical shift. Are you ready?

Michael J. Sorrell is president of Paul Quinn College and a member of the Center for Minority Serving Institutions’ Advisory Board

[A similar version of this post was published in The Dallas Morning News on May 28, 2014]

Higher Education is Messy in California


Thai-Huy P. Nguyen

Thai-Huy P. Nguyen

California higher education is in big trouble. No surprise there, but the likely culprits of poor student access, affordability and completion may not be just the institutions themselves. Unbeknownst to individuals not privy to California’s complex political ecology, the state’s three primary systems of higher education, according to a new report released by the Institute for Research on Higher Education, are constrained by the inability of state legislatures to determine and align state’s needs to a unified higher education agenda. This situation makes it difficult for institutions to address the needs of racial minority and low-income students, whose enrollment has diminished since the 2008 recession, for increased, affordable educational opportunities. Based on the report’s analysis, there is little evidence — a complex political environment and political indifference, a non-existing statewide finance policy, and insufficient attention to student transitions from high school as well as between the three systems — of a promising future for California higher education.

“California is allergic to leadership,” claims a higher education policymaker, who was interviewed for the report. Not far from the truth, such a statement speaks to the uncoordinated efforts by politicians, policymakers and system leaders — fueled by their individual agendas — to address increasing costs to institutional capacity, dwindling federal financial support and a growing demand for a college education. Unlike other states, California does not possess a higher education governing board that determines the state’s goals, agenda and systematic strategy for improving educational attainment. And despite the 1960 Master Plan, which was developed to give direction to California’s three public systems — University of California, California State University, and California Community Colleges — and encourage them to work together, today we see them doing the exact opposite. Each system deliberates on tuition and fees and strategies for survival in isolation of each other, without regard to the students who are moving within and across systems. Even permission to access student records across the three segments lies within each system. The three systems have outgrown the intentions of the Master Plan, and they are in dire need of a board that can unify their efforts as well as represent a formidable force at the state-level.

The median family income has dropped eight percent between 2000-2011, however, tuition across the three California public systems has been anything, but static. According to the report, “At UC, tuition and fees increased from $6,576 in 2007-2008 to $12,132 in 2013-2014 for in-state undergraduates. CSU tuition and fees rose from $3,521 in 2007-2008 to $6,519 in 2011-2012. Fees in two-year institutions doubled, from $600 in 2008-09 to $1,424 in 2013-2014″ (p. 10). Moreover, “state appropriations, tuition, and financial aid are established separately with no consideration as to how they align with statewide policies” (p. 2).

This is akin to shooting darts in the dark, or flushing money down the toilet. Despite the tightening of institutional purse strings at the state and federal level, states, especially California in this case, must assess how their lack of financial policy has contributed to the states financial burden. And lastly, there is little coordination within and between the three public systems and the greater K-12 system. The availability of courses to satisfy requirements for each system remain varied across the state and the requirements for smooth transition from a community college to a California State or University of California campus are confounded and constrained by inconsistent course policies. Recent reforms to address these challenges have been met with overall poor transfer rates to four-year institutions.

The unruly environment at the state-level makes it challenging for all students to enter and navigate college, but considering California’s population is 59 percent people of color, consequences of this environment may be more severe for minority students who tend to stem from more disadvantaged backgrounds. Improving achievement for all students must require a stringent examination of how policy is created in order to redevelop a process that tears down barriers, as opposed to creating new ones.

Thai-Huy P. Nguyen is a Ph.D. candidate in higher education at PennGSE and a research assistant at CMSIs. 

This article was jointly published with the Huffington Post on Wednesday, May 14th, 2014. 

A Response to the Supreme Court’s Decision on Affirmative Action

Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions

Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions

The Supreme Court decision to uphold the ban on affirmative action in Michigan and allow states to determine whether to permit or prohibit its use in college admissions will have far reaching effects on the higher education landscape that extend beyond basic enrollment. This ruling, in combination with recent performance-based funding measures in some states, has the potential to greatly restrict access and resources for students of color.

In a 6-to-2 decision, the majority determined that it was not the responsibility of the Supreme Court to decide this issue, but rather the people each state by the ballot.

Moderate to sharp declines in enrollment numbers at flagship institutions in states like California, Florida and Michigan illustrates the damaging effects the absence of affirmative action has on enrollment for students of color at these institutions. This shifting enrollment pattern is also negatively influenced by performance based funding, which incentivizes public institutions to value more academically prepared students with fewer risk factors for dropping out, rather than dedicating resources to develop students, especially low-income and students of color, with the potential to succeed. These two policies together, have the potential to create additional barriers for students of color, limiting their numbers in flagship public institutions, and effectively forcing them to more regional colleges and universities.

African American, Latino and Native American students are more likely to be from low-income families and under-resourced, under-performing high schools, limiting their ability to enter college fully prepared. These students may have the same academic potential, but have lacked the opportunity to demonstrate their ability. Performance funding evaluates success based on measures that often do not account for outside factors such as these and typically do not reward institutions that help students overcome these challenges. As top-tier public universities compete for the highest performing high school students to ensure high marks based on performance-based funding practices, students of color that may require more support services may not be admitted.

In addition to resources allocated by performance based funding measures, states disperse more funding per student to flagship institutions than other regional and local public institutions. As students of color are directed out of flagship institutions, some states with both of these regulations in place will devote significantly less spending to the education of low-income, students of color compared to their White peers. There is potential for this trend to accelerate as the federal government proposes similar performance-based funding measures that may also negatively affect access.

In the U.S., more than 80 percent of new White students attend selective four-year schools, compared with 13 percent for Hispanics and 9 percent for African Americans. In four states—Arizona, Oklahoma, Florida and Michigan—governments have both eliminated the use of affirmative action in college admissions, and instituted performance-based funding methods in their public postsecondary systems. For minority serving institutions in these states, their role in maintaining access to higher education for traditionally marginalized groups is as important as it has ever been. We hope that as higher education leadership in these states and others propose policy changes based on the Supreme Court’s ruling on Tuesday, the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions can be a resource to those institutions and postsecondary systems hoping to preserve the higher education opportunities for all students.

The State of Public Funding & HBCUs

William C. Boland & Marybeth Gasman

William C. Boland & Marybeth Gasman

It’s no secret that HBCUs and MSIs routinely receive the short end of the fiscal stick when it comes to higher education state appropriations. The Southern Education Foundation’s James T. Minor explored this issue in an important 2008 report (Contemporary HBCUs: Considering Institutional Capacity and State Priorities) that focused on 4-year public HBCUs in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and North Carolina. Minor also evaluated enrollment changes and advanced degree program distribution in these states. We sought to update his analysis with a new report.

Our primary research questions were:

  • Is Black student enrollment increasing at public PWI?
  • Have there been substantial changes in advanced degree program distribution?
  • Has enrollment in public HBCUs declined?
  • Has the enrollment of other racial and ethnic students increased at public HBCUs?

We found that Minor’s argument remains as salient today as in 2008:

  • State governments prioritize PWIs and flagships when making appropriations
  • Black student enrollment in PWIs increased in two states and stagnated in two
  • HBCUs do not have an adequate share in the distribution of advanced degree programs
  • Ethnic composition of HBCUs indicates the need for them to continue to broaden their reach and expand their mission

While many public (and private) institutions suffered from the aftershocks of the recent recession, HBCUs (and Minority Serving Institutions) were particularly affected. We found that recent state funding to HBCUs in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi is far below pre-recession levels. This is recognized as the new financial normal for public higher education in the United States and will force all public institutions to pursue alternative funding methods. Only North Carolina has seen state funding rebound. Still, HBCUs continue to be funded at a lower rate than PWIs in this state as well. Even accounting for institutions of similar size, a disparity exists.

Nationwide enrollment trends apply to the states in our study. Overall HBCU enrollments declined slightly in Alabama and Louisiana from 2001-2011. Yet HBCU enrollment increased in Mississippi and North Carolina during the same time span. Black enrollment in PWIs increased in Alabama and Mississippi. It decreased in Louisiana and stagnated in North Carolina. This reveals a continuing issue of inequity within these states.

Echoing a recent Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions study The Changing Face of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, our study shows a shift in the ethnic makeup of HBCUs in the four southern states. White enrollment has declined, with a slight increase in Louisiana. IPEDS data paint a quickly changing portrait of HBCUs: less white, more brown. Latino student populations are exploding in HBCUs. The Black student population is holding steady, decreasing slightly in some institutions, or increasing in others. Yet mirroring the exponential population increase throughout the U.S., Latino students are flocking to HBCUs – at least in the four states within this study.

Concurrent with state funding declines, HBCUs within these states lost advanced degree programs. Every state saw changes in the number of advanced degree programs public 4-year institutions offer. Yet HBCUs saw a greater decline between 2001 and 2011. Not every HBCU or any college should offer graduate programs. Yet some state governments appear to neglect the crucial role that many reputable HBCUs’ graduate degree programs serve. HBCUs graduate more masters and doctoral recipients amongst African-Americans than any other higher education institution. It is important to emphasize the historical commitment of HBCUs to maintain social equality and afford educational opportunity. Proposals for program elimination or mergers tend to neglect this.

The experiences of the public 4-year HBCUs in the states included in this report offer a general vantage by which to view and compare HBCUs and MSIs nationwide. Though the context may differ, their experiences demonstrate the evolution of these institutions in the past decade and point towards how they will continue to change. Of particular importance is the funding imbalance, the impact on enrollments, the changing ethnic composition of enrollments at HBCUs, and the importance of advanced degree program distribution.

William Casey Boland is currently completing an MS.Ed. in higher education at PennGSE where he will begin a Ph.D. in higher education in Fall 2014 as a research assistant at the Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Marybeth Gasman is a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and director of the Center for Minority Serving Institutions (CMSIs). 



New Report Arms Minority Serving Institutions With Relevancy-Focused Data

Marybeth Gasman &Thai-Huy P. Nguyen

Marybeth Gasman & Thai-Huy P. Nguyen

A recent report published by the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education (CARE) and the Asian and Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund (APIASF) on three Asian American Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions (AANAPISIs) marks a seminal shift in our understanding of Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs). The report is based on the first empirical study to longitudinally and rigorously capture and analyze the potential effects of grant-funded interventions on several outcomes at MSIs: transition from developmental to college level courses, credit accumulation, course performance, persistence from one academic term to the next, degree attainment, and transfer from two- to four-year institutions.

Minority Serving Institutions qualify for two major federal benefits: 1) They are given a federal designation that reflects their historical and contemporary commitment to both racial minority and low-income students and qualifies them for 2) grants to support programs and practices that support the achievement of their target student population. For several decades, MSIs have benefited from this unique line of financial support. But when cuts are made to postsecondary education, unlike many well-funded majority institutions, MSIs become the target of constant criticisms used to justify reductions in their federally (and at times, state) funded support. The findings from this new report by CARE and APIASF arm MSIs, and AANAPISIs, specifically, with empirical data to defend their relevance and justify greater support.

The new study examines three community college AANAPISIs, which serve large numbers of low-income Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and the results demonstrate the continued and constant relevance of MSIs:

City College of San Francisco (CA)

The AANAPISI STEM Program was created to increase the presence and improve the successes of AAPI students in STEM majors by providing an official space and a series of student services that addressed common academic and financial challenges. As compared to their AAPI counterparts, who were not enrolled in this special program, students “attempted more academic credits per term… which shortened their time to completion, enrolled in more academically rigorous coursework, and had a higher transfer rate to four-year institutions” (p. 4).

De Anza College (Cupertino, CA)

With a focus on improving the reading and writing skills of their AAPI population, the AAPI-focused learning community, Readiness and Success in College-Level English, was developed for students at the developmental English stage. In addition to the array of support services, this learning community was anchored in Asian American literature courses, an idea that grew out of the belief that student learning and engagement would improve if students were exposed to curriculum that centralized their histories and traditions. De Anza College witnessed exceptional success. Compared to similar AAPI students, who were not enrolled in the program, students in the learning community “were more likely to transition from developmental to college-level English, to pass their college-level English course and accomplished the transition in less time, and earn an associate’s degree” (p. 3).

South Seattle Community College (WA)

With students in developmental English struggling to make the transition to college-level courses, South Seattle also created a learning community for English Language Learners. Students in this program were supported by a wide network of staff, faculty and “peer navigators” who monitored and tracked students’ progress inside and outside the classroom. Compared to AAPI students not enrolled in the learning community, students “were more likely to transition from development to college-level courses, had a higher rate of persistence in the term following the intervention, and were more likely to earn an associate’s degree” (p. 4).

But beyond the positive influence these programs have had on their students, these are not — in our mind — the most important finding from this new study. The results of these evaluations were used to determine the potential of these programs to assist even more students if they were bought up to scale. According to the report, if each institutions’ programs were bought up to scale — meaning, if more funding was provided — the impact would be quite significant with improvements (based on passing, persistence and transfer rates) ranging from 59 to 146 percent of their target population. We are led to ask two questions: Why don’t we give the institutions that know how to improve outcomes for low-income and minority students more funds? And, why don’t we look to these same institutions as models for national efforts to increase attainment among low-income and minority students?

The lesson from this new report is quite simple: MSIs have a measured pulse on the challenges and needs of their students, and they deserve greater financial consideration if they are expected to contribute to the health of our nation. Research on MSIs must continue in the direction of this report by advancing empirical studies that inform evidence-based practices and policies.

This post was previously published in the Huffington Post on April 16, 2014. 

Marybeth Gasman is a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and director of the Center for Minority Serving Institutions (CMSIs). Thai-Huy P. Nguyen is a Ph.D. candidate in higher education at PennGSE and a research assistant at CMSIs.