The Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions recently released Investing in Student Success: The Return on Investment of Minority Serving Institutions. This report grew from the National MSI Return on Investment Convening held last December. The convening continued the conversation on how Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) educate and graduate substantial numbers of low-income and first-generation students of color. Within a heightened policy climate of accountability that emphasizes return on investment (ROI), MSIs now more than ever must learn to clearly convey their strengths and accomplishments. The ROI Convening was just one attempt to further this cause. Through research paper presentations, impact talks, and small working groups, the convening highlighted what makes MSIs a powerful force in the present and future of higher education. It also offered collaborative environments for contemplating and creating actionable plans of action for institutions to better serve their students and communities.
As a participant in the ROI convening, I observed several reoccurring themes throughout the presentations and discussions. What follows are my five key takeaways and recommendations. I think I speak on behalf on most in attendance that the event was a reminder of the vital work of MSIs and an incubator for future ideas on how to further their missions.
1) MSIs are worth the investment
Through an assortment of quantitative and qualitative methodologies, the paper presenters proved that MSIs are worth the investment:
- In their paper assessing the impact of a federally funded learning community program at an AANAPISI community college, Cynthia Alcantar demonstrated that the program substantially boosted degree attainment, increased transfer to four-year institutions, and lessened students’ time to advance from developmental to college-level classes.
- Ginger Stull and Stephanie Rainie addressed how MSIs need not subscribe to the common measures of success. They argued that institutions like TCUs promote atypical ROI measures arising from the institutions themselves rather than external forces. These characteristics include critical thinking, self-esteem, leadership, and community engagement. Though MSIs must be mindful of expectations (especially in terms of outside funding), Stull and Rainie raised the important point that MSIs must write their own narratives and avoid repeating verbatim the narrative of lawmakers and foundations driving specific agendas.
- Toby Park and Stella Flores along with Terrell Strayhorn tackled the topic of workforce ROI. Park and Flores found that Latino graduates of HSIs have earnings comparable to Latinos from non-HSIs, after controlling for institutional selectivity. Meanwhile, Strayhorn demonstrated that HBCU graduates show positive returns on investment in occupational status and Black identity after controlling for institutional selectivity.
2) Who are the investors?
One participant asked: who are the investors? It’s a question we should ask ourselves whenever discussing the future mission of MSIs. MSIs rely on federal discretionary grant funding and state allocations. Several people spoke of the necessity of pressing policymakers to loosen the purse strings. Talk of finance leaned towards demanding our government leaders to boost state and federal funding. Indeed, state and federal funding has declined precipitously over the past two decades. Many states have nudged their appropriations somewhat. Yet state and federal funding will likely not return to prior high water marks. While policymakers must be kept aware of the importance of funding MSIs, relying solely on public appropriations is myopic. It avoids the thornier option of seeking alternative funding sources. Indeed, MSIs must continue to seek out federal research grants. More sustainable funding sources must be sought and nurtured, including development via alumni and relationships with local business and industry.
3) Understanding we’re not all “numbers people”
Based on participant discussions throughout the convening, many were skeptical of statistical analyses. I suspect there are two reasons for this: 1. Not everyone has taken statistics. The quantitative studies with regression models were likely lost on those who mistake degrees of freedom as a measure of a nation’s level of liberty. 2. Though they can and should be an instrument of good, data have been used as weapons against HBCUs and MSIs. We need look no further than the sadly routine media bashing of HBCUs as antiquated and ineffectual institutions. Given the widespread unfamiliarity with quantitative methods, the convening emphasized that presenters of statistical studies must make greater efforts to carefully define terminology and the overall context of their findings.
4) Importance of self-assessment
Conducting routine evaluation of federal grant-funded programs can reveal the real power of MSIs. The paper “The Return on Investment for an AANAPISI-Funded Program: Outcomes for Asian American and Pacific Islander Community College Students” provides an exemplary framework for conducting a rigorous assessment. Program evaluation offers MSIs a critical opportunity to rigorously suss out what works and what doesn’t. MSI students are not properly served by grant-funded projects that fail to support their needs and progress. While program evaluations signal the strengths of MSIs to policymakers, they also measure the efficacy of MSI programs in supporting their students.
5) We’re in this together
Despite a feeling of congeniality and mutual respect, there were moments of critical discussion. We in the academic and education and social justice communities welcome respectful critique and reasoned argument. Yet our conversations sometimes veer too far from the path of logical thought and action. Given the fiscal reality noted above, it is more important than ever for MSIs to combine forces. It serves no one when MSIs and the advocacy organizations that promote them compete with one another and carve out separate spheres of influences. One of the most important elements of MSIs is their rejection of traditional higher education competitive characteristics. We’re in this together. We persevere together and fail when divided.
Casey Boland is a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and a research assistant at the Center for Minority Serving Institutions.