MSI Degree Completion: Using Data for Fair Comparisons

Toby J. Park & Stella M. Flores

Toby J. Park & Stella M. Flores

Yes—graduation rates at HSIs and HBCUs are, on average, lower than those at traditional institutions, but so is the average level of academic preparation of incoming students. Not to mention the fact that HSIs and HBCUs are often underfunded. Given that the inputs are different, should we be surprised that the outputs are, too?

The reality is that HSIs and HBCUs are often enrolling students who may not have another chance to go to college, and reap its associated benefits. Is it fair, therefore, to compare these students’ likelihood of completing college to those who were able to attend a more selective institution? In a recently released study (Flores & Park, 2014), we use data on high school graduates in Texas to see what happens to the likelihood of completing a college degree at HSIs and HBCUs when we employ more “equalized” comparison groups. That is, comparing students who attend MSIs to their very similar counterparts who attend traditional institutions, based on the data available. The data, while not perfect, represent a great advantage over other data sources used to date in regard to capturing important details about a student’s academic preparation but also where they went to high school and their local community contexts.

In 2002, only 26% of Black students who enrolled in a HBCU had taken an AP or IB course, compared to 45% of Black students who enrolled at a predominately white institution. And, only 54% of Hispanic students who enrolled in an HSI had taken trigonometry, compared to 62% of Hispanic students who enrolled at a traditional institution. Given these disparities in academic preparation, it comes as no surprise that, six years later, the likelihood of college completion at HSIs and HBCUs for these students averaged roughly 11 percentage points lower than traditional institutions.

This isn’t the end of story, however. We undertook an analysis to match Hispanic and Black students to their academic peers who enrolled at traditional institutions as previously noted. Rather, we did a true comparison by looking only at students who had similar levels of academic preparation going into college. In addition, and given that HSIs and HBCUs, are often underfunded, we also took into account the resources HSIs, HBCU, and traditional schools bring to the table. The results are compelling.

We find no difference in the likelihood of completing college for Hispanic and Black students who enroll at HSIs or HBCUs, compared to similar students who enrolled at traditional institution.

This finding is in contrast to what is often portrayed in the media and the opinions of some who point to MSIs as failing to adequately serve their student bodies. The research doesn’t release Minority Serving Institutions or any postsecondary institution from accountability to serve their students, but neither should we make unfair comparisons about graduation rates when the context in which our students are educated from K-12 to higher education can vary drastically by race and class. To that end we challenge any claim that is not fairly constructed.   Our research suggests, at least in Texas, that for some students, attending an HSI or HBCU may help students complete college and achieve economic success via things we cannot measure—e.g., social and cultural capital gained from attending an HSI or an HBCU.

HSIs and HBCUs face harsh criticisms and are often under a constant threat of scarce resources; however, they are producing results. The fact that we find no difference in the outputs after taking into account the inputs makes us wonder whether HSIs and MSIs might do a better job of serving their student sectors. In any case, the demands of the modern economy will continue to require more college graduates and the institutions most likely to produce them are likely to be institutions that serve large numbers of Black and Latino/a students.   Imagine what these institution could do if they were able to receive the funding they so desperately need and deserve.

Toby Park is an assistant professor of economics of education and education policy at Florida State University and affiliate at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Stella M. Flores is an associate professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University and affiliate at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Dr. Flores was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to produce this study. This work does not necessarily represent the views of the Gates Foundation.  The complete research study was recently released in Research in Higher Education. The link to the article can be found at: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11162-014-9342-y

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