American Diversity is Beautiful

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Noah Drezner

Earlier this month, the Super Bowl was filled with commercials that made us laugh, pulled at our heart strings, and celebrated American patriotism. As the first half came to a close, The Coca-Cola Company premiered “It’s Beautiful,” a 60-second commercial that was meant to salute all Americans and the “Coca-Cola moments” that we share with one another.

The commercial featured the song “America the Beautiful” originally written as a poem by Katharine Lee Bates in 1893 to celebrate Independence Day.  In the Coke version it was sung by young American women in seven languages, English, Tagalog, Spanish, Hebrew, Hindi, Keres, and Senegalese-French. The images of the ad showcased the US landscape with majestic Pacific views, the expansive desert Southwest, and the great metropolitan cities paired with impressions of the lives of Americans and our rich diversity of race, ethnicity, religion, and families. We saw  a cowboy riding his horse, kids sipping a Coke at the movies, teenagers on surfboards and breakdancing, a Latino family sitting down for dinner, Muslim women wearing their hijab while buying food from a cart in Chinatown, two Jewish men in kippot looking upon the newly-built World Trade Center, and a same-sex family enjoying roller skating together.

By halftime social media was abuzz…“In America we speak English.” Conservative pundits[A1]  accused Coke of pushing multiculturalism down our collective throats. The backlash was expected. And, I believe that The Coca-Cola Company knew exactly what it was doing with their advertisement.  They were marketing to the expanding diverse population that is becoming—and has been—the American reality.

According to the US Census, the United States is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, as is American higher education. The Department of Education reports that between 1980 and 2011 minority student enrollment increased by nearly 300 percent across all of post-secondary education. The Center for MSIs reports that Latino/a enrollment increased over 500 percent, Black student enrollment increased 165 percent, Asian and Pacific Islanders by 336 percent, and American Indians/Alaska Natives by 118 percent, while the White student proportion of the college enrollment fell by more than 26 percent, over the same period.

Coca-Cola’s advertisement reflects what America looks like and what higher education must look like in order to serve the American population in the coming decades. MSIs, in all of their forms, are educating much of the diversity that Coke highlighted. For example, historically Black colleges and university (HBCUs), while only making up 3 percent of higher education enroll 11 percent of Black undergraduates. Ten percent of American Indian and Alaskan Native undergraduates are enrolled in Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), which don’t even account for 1 percent of American higher education. Similarly, Hispanic serving institutions (HSIs) make up less than 5 percent of US colleges and universities, however, account for one-half of all Latinos pursuing their bachelor’s degree. Finally, Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions (AANAPISIs), which make up less than 3 percent of institutions, enroll 25 percent of AAP undergraduates. Beyond student enrollment, MSIs also better reflect American diversity in the faculty as well, employing a much more diverse professoriate than predominantly White institutions.

While MSIs enrollment is reflective of the America reflected in the Coke’s “It’s Beautiful” ad, many of these institutions still have a number of challenges ahead of them in retaining and graduating their diverse student bodies. The six-year graduation rates at MSIs are below the national average, which can be explained by the substantial proportion of low-income students that are served at these institutions. While the lower socio-economic status of MSIs’ students might explain the lower graduation rates, it is not a justification; we must work towards increasing the graduation rates at all MSIs. It is not only MSIs’ obligation, but all of American higher educations’ responsibility to make sure that our students of color not only enroll in college but achieve their degree.

The Coca-Cola Company through its Super Bowl commercial reminds us that diversity, like America, is beautiful. MSIs through their enrollment, employment, and larger work add to that beauty and diversity.

Noah D. Drezner is an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Maryland, College Park and an affiliate at PennGSE’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions

MSI Unplugged

Michael Sorrell

Michael J. Sorrell

As the president of a Minority Serving Institution (“MSI”), I spend a lot of time trapped in conversations of the “America no longer needs your kind of colleges” nature. Additionally, it seems as if every article I read is inundating me with research findings that purport to confirm the inferiority of MSIs or studies that lament the damaging impact of gifted students attending our schools (code name: “under-matching”).  At a time when higher education is searching for more ways to educate minority and under-resourced students, MSIs find themselves in the ironic position of being attacked while the methods they have successfully used to nurture and educate students for over 100 years are being copied by majority-run institutions.

My role, and the role of so many others who toil in the MSI vineyard, is that of the contrarian. We cite data, respond to misinformation, and beat back the aggressive advances of our adversaries using achievements that fly in the face of conventional wisdom.  We do all of this with the firm conviction that we are right in our belief that MSIs are more vital to the American Dream of social mobility than a country full of premium universities that primarily educate the already educated.  But, as we ready for yet another battle against overwhelming odds, the relentless tide of animosity and negativity forces us to at least ask ourselves the question: what if we are wrong?

For me, the answer to this question can be found in the faces and life experiences of the three Paul Quinn College seniors currently competing for class valedictorian honors. While their academic accomplishments are impressive, it is their individual stories that make them, like so many other students at MSIs, special.

I found Valette Reese at her home church of Anderson Chapel, A.M.E. in Killeen, Texas.  She had graduated in the top 15% of her high school class but somehow spent her first year post-high school at a vocational training school studying to become an auto-mechanic.  I told her that if she would rather own garages than work in them, we could help her with that. Four years later, she is a Presidential Scholar, will graduate Summa Cum Laude, is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., has been student body president, and after three separate internships with GE, she will join that company after commencement with a full-time job.

Artemio “Eddie” Vazquez. Eddie is an undocumented citizen of this country.  He graduated from both high school and community college near the top of his class.  He is bright, charming, and entrepreneurial.  In a different time and place where dreams become laws, students like Eddie would not be forced to work two and three part-time jobs (while achieving near perfect grade point averages) to help offset their lack of access to federal financial aid.  As a result of his citizenship issues, Eddie’s post-commencement plans are up in the air.

Quentin Smith-Burley aka “Tony Staxx”.  Paul Quinn is Quentin’s third college.  The first two primarily saw him as his alter ego, successful recording artist “Tony Staxx.”  If these schools had scratched beneath the surface, perhaps they would have found the businessman Quentin Smith-Burley, he of nimble mind and striking intellect.  If they had looked, those institutions would have found a young man who responds to mentoring better than almost anyone I have ever met. Quentin will complete his studies this spring and head off to a graduate school in the state of Texas.

If my allies and I are wrong about the need for MSIs, then the Valettes of the world will become mechanics in their hometowns; young men like Eddie will be the most popular mixologists at local bars; and America will have a never-ending array of Tony Staxxes staring at them from their YouTube channels.

I suspect that somewhere buried deep inside their institutional souls, our adversaries know that MSIs are neither inferior nor outdated.  After all, if MSIs were so inadequate, why are there so many MSI success stories? Maybe it is time for the foes of MSIs to ask themselves: what if they are wrong?

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

Hispanic Serving Institutions: Opportunities to Lead and Challenges to Succeed

Deborah Santiago

Deborah Santiago

It appears there is finally a sustained public interest in Latinos. And while the general profile of our population is too often limited to issues of immigration, there is growing awareness of the Latino population in higher education. Did you know that a relatively few number of colleges and universities in the U.S. enroll the majority of today’s Latino students? Almost 60 percent of all Hispanic undergraduates were enrolled in less than 15 percent of all college and universities (370) in 16 states identified as Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs).

Too few people also know how HSIs are defined. The institutions are defined in federal legislation as degree-granting public or private not-for-profit institutions of higher education with total Hispanic undergraduate full-time equivalent enrollment of 25 percent or more. That’s a mouthful and more nuanced a definition than most people care to retain. But the key characteristic to remember is enrollment. Unlike Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), HSIs are defined by their concentrated enrollment of Hispanic students, not by an explicit mission to serve these students.

The HSI definition creates opportunities for these institutions to lead as trendsetters in access to higher education in ways they have rarely been considered for two clear reasons:

  1. HSIs’ student profile actually represents the majority of students in the U.S. While public policy is still focused on the traditional student enrolled in traditional institutions and enrolling in traditional pathways, HSIs have been creating and refining their efforts of community outreach and student access with the post-traditional students of today. Post-traditional students are more likely to be Latino or other students of color, low-income, first-generation college goers with need for academic support. Post-traditional students represent the population more colleges and universities are, or will soon need to, recruit.
  2. HSIs have adapted their institutional practices to increase access with constrained resources. HSIs who have embraced the post-traditional student as their target population are more often public and open access colleges located in large or growing Latino communities with limited resources. However, demography is not destiny, and financial resources alone do not guarantee access. Successful HSIs have not taken for granted that Latinos live in their service area by assuming the institution’s location guarantees Latino students will enroll; HSIs are initiating strategies to enroll Latino students. Trendsetting HSIs have recognized success in access strategies that include building community relationships and trust; explicit outreach to Latino parents to inform them of opportunities and recruit their support for their students; student awareness and engagement strategies with feeder high schools and community colleges; and flexibility in scheduling classes during nights and weekends. Traditional institutions can learn from the trendsetting HSIs.

However, HSIs also have challenges that go beyond enrollment and are critical to ensuring success—both for themselves and their students—such as the following two challenges:

  1. HSIs must demonstrate what institutions can do to serve, not just enroll Latino students. Success in enrolling Hispanic students is necessary, but not sufficient, to increase Latino college completion. To “serve” Hispanic and other post-traditional students in higher education, an institution must actively promote these students’ success. Leading HSIs have embraced the responsibility to serve students by implementing more holistic strategies with cultural competency to increase student retention through academic and student support services and increase persistence with student employment, financial aid, and program flexibility to ultimately increase student success. Codifying and sharing the stories of their success in serving post-traditional students is thus a challenge, as well as an opportunity for HSIs.
  2. HSIs must identify appropriate metrics to track their progress in serving students. Accountability for the investment of public funds at colleges and universities is a dominating discussion in state legislatures as well as Washington DC today. However, current metrics used to define an institution’s success (and increasingly being considered for performance-based funding) are often too simplistic to track the often experimental and evolving efforts by institutions committed to serving high concentrations of post-traditional students. HSIs and other Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) are challenged to take the lead in identifying multiple metrics that more appropriately track their value-added efforts in student success. Beyond graduation rates, these metrics can include consideration of semester-to-semester retention rates, part-time and transfer student completion, and completion rates for cohorts with post-traditional traits. Further, HSIs can propose the use of metrics for a more appropriate comparison with other institutions, such as the percentage representation of needy students and level of education and general expenditures for a more appropriate comparison with other institutions.

The two opportunities and two challenges noted are not intended to be exhaustive of the opportunities and challenges HSIs and other MSIs are facing. Rather, the hope is to spark additional critical thinking about the role these institutions currently play in the U.S. postsecondary landscape and their potential contributions and constraints to ensure the success of current and future students.

Deborah A. Santiago is the COO and Vice President of Policy at Excelencia in Education and an Advisory Board member at Penn’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

We are the Watusi

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Walter Kimbrough

Recently there has been considerable buzz about the White House Summit with college and university leaders. This group met to discuss ways to increase the entrance and success of low income students in college. The event was dominated by schools deemed the best in the nation, those with the strongest students, lots of money and influence, and great rankings. In many ways that makes perfect sense. The actions of higher education’s elite institutions command media attention that ensures this important topic becomes part of the nation’s agenda.

The frank discussions about college access and success of low-income students also allow the nation to confront reality. A 2011 study by the Pell Institute suggested the threat of income-based inequality in education is a key obstacle in reaching President Obama’s 2020 education goal. The facts are shocking. Bachelor’s degree attainment by age 24 for dependent students from the bottom half of the income distribution was only 12%. The same group from the top half had a rate of 58.8%.

Similarly, a 2012 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts examined economic mobility across generations. In short, 66% raised in the bottom two rungs of the income ladder stay there, and 66% raised at the top stay there. For blacks, 50% remain stuck in the very bottom, and are twice as likely as whites to fall from the middle to the bottom two rungs. The good news is degree attainment triples the chances of moving from the bottom to the top, and greatly reduces the likelihood of remaining trapped at the bottom.

With these sobering statistics, as a nation, we must ensure that no matter where a student starts, they will have the opportunity to receive a college education so that they can not only improve their own lives, but also change the fortunes of future generations. They need to not only be welcomed into higher education, but actively sought out and encouraged to work toward a degree. They should be assured that they won’t be judged by what they don’t have, but rather by what they may become.

Sounds like the story of many of the nation’s minority serving institutions.

While the nation’s elite institutions play a critical role in our educational ecosystem, serving low income students is not their area of expertise. While 36% of the nation’s college students qualify for the Pell Grant, coming from families which earn less than $40,000 a year, many of the participants at this “low income access” summit have percentages of Pell grant students in the teens. Furthermore, in the race for prestige driven by US News rankings, their percentages of low income students have declined over the past few decades.

Going forward, I hope that the real experts in educating low income students are not only involved but take the lead in this important issue. A few of my Black college president colleagues were in attendance, but they were a decisive minority. Even fewer Hispanic serving and tribal colleges were invited. And yet, these sectors enroll the greatest numbers of low-income students. Black colleges have enrollments where nearly 70% of all students are Pell recipients, a figure higher than that of community colleges.

Considering the data on low income student degree attainment, black colleges in particular, overperform despite tremendous odds against these students. So instead of bringing foundations together with wealthy schools that have no real incentive to enroll massive numbers of low income students (rankings ensure that), why not team foundations with schools whose missions specifically focus on students with the most need? That way, we focus resources where they are needed with the people committed to this mission since their inception.

In the 1967 classic, “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” someone asks Sidney Portier’s character why Black kids are good dancers. He replies, “You can do the Watusi, but we are the Watusi.” When it comes to success educating low-income students, Minority Serving Institutions are the Watusi.

Many at the recent summit were there saying they want to learn it.

Walter Kimbrough is President of Dillard University and an Advisory Board member of Penn’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions.