4 Things I Wish I Knew About MSIs When Applying To College

Mayo, Stephanie

Stephanie Mayo

While I am so grateful for the support I had in applying to college as a first-generation college student, I wish I knew more about Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) during that time. I wish I knew them for their invaluable work in supporting students rather than the negative myths surrounding them. After months conducting research on MSIs as a Research Assistant at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions (CMSI) and having multiple interactions with students who attended MSIs over the past few years, I have come to the conclusion that there is another side of MSIs that the higher education system and mainstream media do not reveal or appreciate. Thus, I’ve decided to provide some of the information I’ve learned about the other side of MSIs to help inform others about their great work. Here are four important things you should know about MSIs, especially if you or someone you know is applying to college:

  • Despite being under-resourced overall, MSIs enroll a proportionally higher number of first-generation, low-income students of color than non-MSIs.

MSIs tend to be under-resourced for two reasons according to the Institute of Higher Education. One, because MSIs serve mostly low-income, first generation, college students, they try to maintain their tuition at reasonable prices to accommodate their students. As a result, MSIs overall have lower revenues than Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs). For instance, in 2010, core revenues per full-time equivalent (FTE) student were an average of $16,648 at four-year MSIs, compared to $29,833 per FTE at non-MSIs. Two, MSIs continuously face state and federal budget cuts. While all public institutions must cope with declines in state appropriations, MSIs are more vulnerable due to the lower revenue they receive compared to PWIs.

Despite having less resources, MSIs contribute greatly to the number of low-income, first-generation, college students of color enrolled in higher education institutions. While 38% of undergraduate students at non-MSIs received a Pell grant in the 2011-12 school year, 44% of undergraduate students at MSIs received a Pell grant. At Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), two-thirds of enrolled students receive Pell grants. At MSIs overall, 42% of the students enrolled are first-generation college students compared to only 33% at non-MSIs.

Similar to serving more students who are low-income and first-generation college students, MSIs also serve a larger portion of students who are ethnic minorities. HBCUs comprise 3% of all colleges and universities, yet enroll 16% of the Black undergraduate population. Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) represent less than 1% of the total number of colleges and universities, yet enroll 9% of Native American students in college. Asian American Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions (AANAPISIs) comprise less than 1% of postsecondary institutions in the US, yet enroll 20% of all Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in higher education. Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) represent about 8% of all colleges and universities, yet enroll 51% of all Latino students enrolled in higher educational institutions. Based on these numbers, it appears that MSIs serve greater numbers of students who are high-need students, despite having less resources than non-MSIs to serve them.

  1. MSIs are large producers of students of color in STEM fields and graduate and professional degrees.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, HBCUs, for example, have provided numerous educational opportunities to Black Americans. Two HBCUs, Howard University and Meharry Medical College, trained more than 80% of the entire Black population who have degrees in either medicine and dentistry. HBCUs also educated three-fourths of Blacks with doctorate degrees and four-fifths of all Black federal judges in their undergraduate careers. HBCUs rank high in the percentage of graduates who pursue and complete graduate and professional training. They also lead in awarding bachelor degrees to Blacks in the life sciences, physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering.

Similar to HBCUs, HSIs educate large numbers of Latinos who attain PhDs. In a ranking conducted by the National Science Foundation of the top 50 colleges and universities that produced Latino PhDs between 2008 and 2012, the 16 MSIs on the list produced almost half (49.3%) of the total Latino PhD recipients. Additionally, another list comprised by the National Science Foundation ranking the top 40 US undergraduate institutions that prepared Latinos to attain their doctorate degree in engineering listed nine HSIs. These nine HSIs contributed 43.7% of the students represented by all 40 schools.

Similar trends are found with TCUs and with AANAPISIS. Thus, the National Science and Technology Council recently acknowledged that MSIs are the institutions to work with to increase the percentage of people of color in STEM fields. In 2013, it created a 5-year plan to collaborate with MSIs to continue supporting their work in increasing students of color in underrepresented fields.

  1. MSIs can have different structures to support their students of color.

The framework of MSIs is to best serve the needs of the minority population they serve. During my time at CMSI, I’ve learned that there two ways to define MSIs: as either mission-based or population-based. Mission-based MSIs integrate serving a specific minority population into their school mission. HBCUs and TCUs are mission-based MSIs. As for population-based MSIs, they are colleges and universities that have a specific percentage of enrolled students that are from a specific minority student population. These two definitions can and often do overlap, but they also mean different MSIs can have different structures of support for their students of color.

Once a school reaches a certain percentage, that school must then “apply for eligibility for Title III/V programs, which includes demonstrating a certain level of institutional need based on a high proportion of low-income students or relatively low expenditures per student.” Once a school receives federal funding, that college/university is then officially recognized as an MSI. The enrollment percentage required for a college/university to be eligible to be recognized as an MSI varies depending on the kind of MSI designation the school is likely to reach. AANAPISIs and most HSIs are examples of enrollment-driven MSIs.

Regardless of whether an MSI is mission-based or enrollment-driven, the specific needs of low-income, first-generation college minority students are emphasized. Having a college/university focus on the academic performance and well-being of students from disadvantaged backgrounds translates into culturally responsive learning, acceptance, care, and appreciation of low-income, first-generation minority college students. Professors focus on building close relationships with students and often encourage students to bring their whole selves to class. MSIs understand that part of the success of an MSI is recruiting professors of color to support and mentor their students of color. MSIs empower their students to use their background as a strength, which helps students build strong self-identities.

Based on personal accounts from my friends who attended MSIs who are now in graduate school, their MSI professors worked diligently with them to help them to understand coursework concepts. Also, for my peers who attended MSIs, it was uncommon to see other students of color feel stigmatized in pursuing STEM degrees. While the mainstream media seemingly never fails to mention the progress that has been made to support low-income, first-generation college students on PWI campuses, what they miss is that such support has been routinely available at MSIs all along.

  1. A low-income, first-generation, student of color is equally as likely to graduate with a bachelor’s degree from an MSI as they are from a non-MSI

There is the misconception that MSIs graduate students from low-income and minority backgrounds at lower rates compared to non-MSIs. Admittedly, MSIs do have lower graduate rates than non-MSIs. However, one must take into account the disadvantage MSIs have in resources and in the kinds of population they serve compared to non-MSIs. Demonstrated in point 2 above, MSIs receive lower revenue than non-MSIs overall. MSIs also cater to more high-needs students than non-MSIs. Thus, when comparing graduation rates between MSIs and non-MSIs, one must understand that MSIs are more at a disadvantage than non-MSIs.

The disadvantage, however, does not impede MSIs from graduating low-income, first-generation college minority students in relatively high numbers and in underrepresented fields. Despite the continuous challenges MSIs face in meeting the needs of the students, MSIs graduate students at the same rate as non-MSIs when comparing students based on the same level of academic preparation. A study by Stella Flores and Toby Park, for example, revealed that students at HSIs graduated at the same rate as students at non-HSIs when controlling for the educational background of students and the resources of the institutions they attend. This is a significant finding considering that MSIs have less funding and serve more high-needs students than non-MSIs.

These are the four points about MSIs that I wish I knew when applying to colleges. Knowing them would have dispelled myths that kept me from applying to these supportive institutions and helped me make a more informed choice. Rather than excluding MSIs from my list, I should have incorporated them. This is not to suggest that I do not appreciate the experience and opportunities I had attending a non-MSI. However, for high school students considering college, it is important to have a full view of the options available to them. As the four points above demonstrate, there are a lot of good reasons for students applying to college to refrain from discounting MSIs—and even more reasons to consider including MSIs at the tops of their lists.

Stephanie Mayo is currently a student at the Penn Graduate School of Education pursuing her M.S.Ed. in Education Policy and a research assistant at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

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