Hidden Treasures: The Colleges and Universities that are Finally Being Noticed

Marybeth Gasman & Thai-Huy P. Nguyen

Marybeth Gasman & Thai-Huy P. Nguyen


As our nation begins to reexamine its social structure—one, which for so long has been perceived to reward merit and hard work, but in actuality reproduces social class inequities and prevents minority groups from upward mobility—a vision for a new educational landscape must include MSIs. Research and national attention on MSIs have risen dramatically in the past five years, including last week’s Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) new report, Minority-Serving Institutions: Doing More with Less. Unlike prior studies that look at individual MSI sectors—Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and Asian American, Native American, and Pacific Islander Serving Institutions (AANAPISIs)—IHEP’s recent release pushes its readership to consider the broader magnitude of these institutions’ efforts and outcomes, in light of growing financial constraints that continue to nip and tug at their budget lines.

According to IHEP’s report, we know that MSIs enroll 22% of all undergraduates and 39% of all undergraduate students of color and award nearly 16% of all undergraduate degrees and 32% of all credentials awarded to undergraduate students of color, despite making up only 14% of all undergraduate-serving institutions. They are doing more with less, but how much more? Representing a collaboration with Lumina Foundation for Education, this report offers a breakdown and comparison of student tuition, total expenses and spending on instructions and support between MSIs and non-MSIs. Such analyses and comparisons are necessary to understand the extent to which the recent economic downturns have affected these MSIs’ capacity to serve their students. Several notable findings include:

  • “Average net price after all sources of grant aid for students with family incomes below $30,000 was $10,548 at four-year MSIs and $6,532 at two-year MSIs” (p. 10). For non-MSIs, the price is $15,735 and $12,127 for four- and two-year institutions, respectively.
  • “Four-year non-MSIs receive more than double the amount of federal appropriations, grants, and contracts than MSIs” (p. 12).
  • “Private gifts, grants, and contracts, investment return, and revenue from affiliated entities made up only 5% of total revenue at four-year MSIs, compared with 22% at non-MSIs” (p. 12).
  • “Net tuition and fee revenue made up about 42% of total revenue at four-year MSIs and 22% at two-year MSIs” (p. 12), as compared to 38% and 34% at four and two-year non-MSIs. This suggests that four-year MSIs and 2-year institutions have less resources for instruction and student services.
  • Per student, four-year MSIs spend $6,275 on instruction, almost $5,000 less than non-MSIs. For student services and academic and institutional support, expenditures per student at four-year non-MSIs is $8,399, $2,649 more than four-year MSIs. Spending between 2-year MSIs and non-MSIs is similar. (p. 13)

Tasked with the same responsibilities to improve our nation’s workforce as non-MSIs, MSIs are, at the very least, doing as much with less. But even in an era of severe frugality, several MSIs have identified strategies to maintain or improve their capacity to support their students. Highlighted for their innovative practices and approaches to a lack of funding, four institutions, one from each of the main MSI sectors, represent lessons for all institutions—those struggling to improve the achievement of underrepresented minority students, as well as institutions contending with financial constraints—to consider.

At the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), an HSI, the Center for Institutional Evaluation Research and Planning has been the bedrock of their success. Approaching student success with the belief that quality data is the first step in improving educational outcomes, the Center created a web-based tool that allows administrators, faculty and staff to monitor and track student progress, as well as identify trending factors that are associated with student attrition. With this level of specificity, UTEP has the ability to minimize any cracks in the pipeline.

At North Caroline Central University, an HBCU, decisions to restructure the campus led to a savings of $2 million dollars. These savings were used to fund new student programs, as well as develop learning communities (LCs) for faculty. These LCs offered faculty members an opportunity to learn new ways to teach, and ultimately improve student learning and success in the classroom.

De Anza College, an AANAPISI, in Northern California, enacted several new policies and practices that allow them to maintain student services for their targeted group. Partnerships were developed and cultivated within the campus, between departments, and with the local community. A task force—made up of faculty, administrators, staff and students—“agreed to share labor and other financial resources across their grants in order to ensure that the funds were effectively and efficiently used” (p.17). And any new services or programs, developed from a grant, are built upon existing student services, saving the institution both time and money.

Salish Kootenai, a TCU in Montana, established a department of academic success, which serves as its central unit to monitor and capture student progress in remedial education. And because a large portion of their students begin their tenure in remedial education, a system that coordinates across departments became a valuable tool to mitigate student attrition.

These institutions are vastly different in their population and institutional structure; however, their approaches to doing more with less includes one powerful and common feature: the goal to improve student success as a community effort. Buy-in from faculty, staff, administrators and students is required if an institution is to survive an era of economic instability. This is the big lesson: if we all did a little extra—spent a bit more time caring for each student—the funds lost during this tight period may matter less.

For more information on Minority Serving Institutions Models of Success, see the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institution’s report Minority Serving Institutions: Educating All Students.

Note:  This post was co-published with The Huffington Post.

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. 

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