Supporting Undocumented Students at Minority Serving Institutions


Fernando Coello


Elisa Chen

Because of their immigration status, many undocumented students in the U.S. face multiple legal and economic obstacles when attempting to obtain a postsecondary education. Federal statutes enacted in 1996 establish that higher education benefits cannot be offered to undocumented students based solely on residency in a state and that undocumented students are not eligible for federal financial assistance. The exorbitant costs of postsecondary education, combined with the unavailability of financial aid, effectively prevent many undocumented students from attaining higher levels of education. Each year, only 5 to 10% of undocumented high school graduates pursue a postsecondary education. This rate is much lower than ​that ​of all high school graduates​ ​in the U.S.​, ​who have consistently enrolled in rates higher than 65% since 2010.

To rectify this, the bipartisan Development, Relief, and Education for Minors (DREAM) Act was first introduced in the U.S. Senate in 2001 and in the U.S. House in 2006 to create an opportunity for some undocumented students to attend college or enlist in the military, while also providing them with a path toward legal citizenship. However, since its introduction, the DREAM Act has not passed at the federal level because of political disagreements. While federal statutes do not explicitly prohibit individual states from admitting or enrolling undocumented students, they allow states to decide which students pay in-state tuition and receive state financial aid. A few states, like Alabama and South Carolina, have passed statutes that completely prohibit the mere attendance of undocumented students at state institutions. Other states, fearing repercussions such as discontinued federal funding, continue to charge out-of-state tuition to their undocumented students. Nonetheless, 19 states have incorporated policies, similar to the federal DREAM Act, that allow undocumented students who have attended and graduated from state high schools to pay in-state tuition and/or be eligible for state financial aid.

Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) have an established history of uplifting low-income, first-generation students of color, accounting for only 7% of all U.S. colleges and universities, yet enrolling over 26% of all students in the nation. They have represented a significant opportunity for these individuals and communities to improve economic, social, and political capacity. However, while many undocumented students fall into these categories of students historically supported by MSIs, the forms of government and institutional support available to them at these institutions have been widely understudied. Some important questions for administrators, educators, and policymakers in higher education include but are not limited to:

  • How have MSIs transitioned after the introduction of state legislations affecting undocumented students?
  • Have MSIs disproportionately attracted, enrolled, and/or retained undocumented students compared to predominantly white institutions (PWIs)?
  • What are MSIs’ cultures around undocumented student access and success? How are MSIs different from PWIs regarding undocumented students’ campus experiences? Alternatively, what can PWIs learn from MSIs in this regard?
  • What kind of additional external support do MSIs require to successfully meet their commitment to increasing undocumented students’ educational attainment?

The Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions is currently working on a report focusing on the state of Illinois that sheds light on the effects of state and institutional support on MSI undocumented students’ educational attainment. Specifically, the report will examine trends in enrollment, graduation, and transfers in the MSI context as a result of state interventions, and highlight undocumented student experiences as influenced by institutional policies and practices. The Center has selected Illinois as its case study because of several reasons. First, Illinois has an unconventionally longer history of supporting undocumented students, given that it enacted tuition equality in 2003. Illinois is also one of the states paying close attention to affordability, having instituted a privately funded, government-run scholarship fund for undocumented students in the state. Lastly, while some work on undocumented students has been done in the context of California or Texas, much has to be explored in states, like Illinois, that concentrate a relatively large undocumented population but exist as political “islands,” with nearby states with no state-level support for the undocumented.

Ultimately, the Center’s main goals with this report are to (1) contribute with findings that can support MSIs and the nation as a whole in better educating and serving undocumented students, and (2) further dispel myths about who MSIs are really for, by showing collaborations occurring across various social groups.

Fernando Coello and Elisa Chen are M.S.Ed. candidates in Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and research assistants at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

Addressing Sexual Violence at Historically Black Colleges and Universities


Elisa Chen


Fernando Coello

From allegations of rape at Columbia University to the most recent Facebook scandal at The Penn State University, postsecondary institutions across the nation are facing increased scrutiny for how they handle campus sexual violence. This problem has become so pervasive that President Barack Obama recently established the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, formally recognizing the growing epidemic overtaking higher education. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are not immune. For instance, Lincoln University’s former President Robert Jennings came under fire last year for his comments at an all-women convocation that included students and staff.

Additional federal protections include Title IX and the Clery Act. Title IX prohibits sexual discrimination in federally funded education programs and activities. As stated in the legislation, sexual assault and sexual harassment are forms of sexual discrimination. The Clery Act mandates institutions participating in federal student financial aid programs to disclose campus crime statistics, such as reports of forcible and nonforcible sexual offenses. Most recently, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (VAWA) added new reporting and procedural requirements to the Clery Act. For instance, institutions must provide students with reasonable academic accommodations and living arrangements after assaults, and guarantee transparency in university disciplinary hearings.

Despite these laws, research reveals that campus sexual violence continues to be a problem. In fact, an estimated 20% of women attending Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) are sexually assaulted every year. At HBCUs, the rate is lower: 14%. Some have attributed this discrepancy to the fact that there is less alcohol use at HBCUs and that HBCUs tend to have inclusive family style communities. Conversely, others have argued that the rates are lower at HBCUs because of underreporting. Although it is extremely hard to determine the exact reasons for this discrepancy, the data does raise questions regarding what is being done at HBCUs to prevent and account for campus sexual violence, especially because HBCUs generally have less financial resources than their PWI counterparts.

Key questions include:

  1. What are HBCUs doing to comply with federal regulations?
  2. How are HBCUs dealing with campus sexual violence? How are HBCUs gathering resources and funding to fight campus sexual violence?
  3. How do HBCUs differ from PWIs in their approaches?
  4. How does campus climate affect students’ perceptions of campus sexual violence?
  5. How are students attending HBCUs encouraged to develop healthy sexual relationships?

It is important to conduct research on HBCUs and sexual violence because, when HBCUs rely on data from PWIs, HBCUs may not get a clear picture of the problem as applied to their own campuses. Additionally, understanding how HBCUs are combating campus sexual violence can shed insight into programs that are working versus those that are not.

The Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions is currently working on a report that examines the impacts of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Office on Violence against Women (OVW) Campus Grant Program. The Center will select three HBCUs that have been awarded multi-year grants from this program as case studies. The research will analyze how the grants have been used to:

  1. Affect the number of incidents involving campus sexual violence
  2. Support student services
  3. Bolster training for university administrators and personnel
  4. Improve university relations with external organizations, like local law enforcement and victim advocacy organizations
  5. Influence student behavior and their understanding of campus sexual violence

Ultimately, the Center hopes the research will reveal important implications for HBCUs and other Minority Serving Institutions with constricted financial resources looking to optimize external support in addressing campus sexual violence.

Elisa Chen and Fernando Coello are M.S.Ed. candidates in Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and research assistants at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

Between College Access and Outcomes: Considering Institutional Effort and Student Experiences in Outcomes Based Funding

Jones Photo

Tiffany Jones

Outcomes Based Funding

Over the last decade, higher education has become more entrenched in a movement that holds colleges and universities more accountable to its supporters. Similar to K12 accountability, there are pressures to answer questions about student outcomes and performance, the value of education, the effectiveness of instructors, and the ability of existing leaders to manage efficiently and effectively. It is within this climate that states have adopted Performance or Outcomes Based Funding (OBF) policies. Through OBF, public colleges and universities receive state funding through formulas that no longer rely solely on student enrollment, but are instead based on student outcomes. This means, lower student outcomes, like graduation rates, results in less funding for the college or university. So far, over half of all states have adopted a funding formula that takes student outcomes and institutional performance into account.

In some cases, OBF has resulted in stagnant or lower completion rates, and increased certificates rather than degree attainment to reach completion goals at community colleges. These findings have been met with controversy as some have called into question the lack of consideration of how diverse the policies are in each state. For example, HCM Strategists reports that only three states base more than 5% of their funds on student outcomes and the student outcome metrics vary, thus it is unfair to characterize the policies collectively as having a negative, or no impact on student outcomes. Further, it is also necessary to consider what OBF policies mean for students of color, low income students, and colleges and universities largely that primarily serve these student populations, such as Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs).

Institutional Effort & MSIs

One cannot fully understand the impact of, and responses to OBF at MSIs without first considering the historical relationship between the state and the campus. In the case of South Carolina State University, the state legislature described a 2015 decision to close a public HBCU for two years as based on financial difficulties; however, this decision is colored by a history that includes the lack of land grant matching, permitting academic program duplication at neighboring Predominately White Institutions, and underfunding. The aim is not to use historical context as an excuse for what some characterize as poor outcomes; however, threatening an institution’s base funding as a means to spur innovation and improvement assumes that campuses have the resources they need to operate more effectively, but lack the incentives to do so. Thus, low resourced institutions, including many MSIs and their advocates, have challenged this assumption and the merits of any higher education accountability and rankings system, to accurately rate the performance of these institutions.

Rewarding Equitable College Experiences

Many OBF and other higher education accountability systems include equity related measures that credit institutions that create college access for underserved groups like, low income students and students of color. However a critical piece missing from the equity measures is what actually happens in regards to race and equity, during the college experience. Many would suggest that providing a healthy campus racial climate for students of color is key to this population’s long term success, and may be what MSIs do well, and some otherwise seemingly successful non-MSIs don’t do as well. Without moving beyond the enrollment of students of color to include measures of campus climate, institutional racism, and the experiences of students of color, it is difficult to determine which campuses are doing well and how to reward them.


States are actually well positioned to influence campuses because of how dependent public MSIs are on state funding. Over one-third of funding is based on state and local appropriations at four-year MSIs, only 17% for non-MSIs. The question is how can states leverage their influence to support MSI effectiveness? Also, if the funding formulas result in the same “winners” and “losers” in regards to who gets what funding, then do the policies have the ability to inspire change and innovation at any college or university? Even when agreeing that we should increase institutional effectiveness and improve student outcomes, it will be difficult to secure buy-in for OBF at MSIs if the metrics are not inclusive of the benefits and strengths of MSIs. Many institutions will respond to OBF policies because they can’t afford to ignore the even five percent of funding. Consequently, I challenge policy makers, higher education scholars, and practitioners to engage in a discussion about how to design incentives that reward institutions for cultivating college access, outcomes, and supportive college experiences for students of color.

Tiffany Jones is the Program Director for Higher Education Research and Policy at the Southern Education Foundation (SEF).