It’s giving season again, which means my voicemail and inbox are full of requests for donations to one organization or another. Among the requests I usually receive this time of year is one from my alma mater. As an undergraduate, I attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and I loved every minute of it. I credit UNC for giving me some of my most memorable experiences and facilitating much of my personal and professional growth; my heart will always bleed Carolina blue. That being said, over time I have come to recognize my privilege in that space. I was part of the roughly 10% of the student population that identified as Black at a predominately white institution (PWI) where over two-thirds of the student body was in the top 10% of their high school class and the average admitted student has an SAT composite score of over 1300. I was privileged enough to have the support and resources I needed growing up to fit that profile, but it is important to recognize that a lot of students who look like me don’t. That is why this giving season not only did I make an alumni donation to UNC, but I also supported the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions’ Annual Giving Campaign.
To be a member of a marginalized group in this country is to be constantly taxed mentally and emotionally. With all the increased media coverage of incidents of police brutality, the perpetuation of rape culture, the presidential election, etc., this year has been particularly rough for me. Marginalized groups are constantly at war with systems of oppression, but we remain unmoved in our resolve to fight back. I see examples of this every day, from student protests on campus to the resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and I am inspired to keep pushing back against gross abuses of power and privilege.
This year, I had to ask myself how I can be inspired by protests across the country, support the Black Lives Matter movement and condemn the systemic oppression that targets Black and brown bodies, all the while planning to give to my PWI without considering how that same system of oppression plays out in the classroom? We know that public K12 education doesn’t always give students of color a fair shake—we are tracked, disproportionately disciplined, and denied resources. All of these practices conspire to deny us equal preparation and place highly selective institutions safely out of our reach.
If I am going to give, I want to make sure I am supporting those who need it the most and as a first-generation college student who believes in equity and access, I can’t ignore the facts: MSIs are doing it better. They are bastions of college access, enrolling a disproportionate number of low income and first generation college students of color. Over 60% of all Hispanic students in higher education attend Hispanic Serving Institutions. Three-quarters of all low-income Asian American or Pacific Islander students in higher education study at an AANAPISI. Not only do Tribal Colleges educate over 30,000 students in rural areas, they also are highly concerned with preserving and supporting tribal culture. Over 75% of all students who attend HBCUs are Pell Grant eligible. Even though they account for only 3% of all institutions in the US, HBCUs serve 11% of all Black students in higher education and are responsible for providing one fifth of bachelor’s degrees earned by Black students.
Take a moment to let those numbers sink in and realize just how important these institutions are when it comes to caring for our communities. While PWIs are busy making five- and ten-year plans to create inclusive environments and increase their diversity by a few percentage points, MSIs have been opening doors, cultivating excellence and producing leaders. If you are a PWI grad of color like me, there is no shame in giving back to an institution that gave to you, but let’s also put our money where our mouths are and fight back against education inequalities this season.
This past year, I had the pleasure and privilege of working as a graduate research assistant at the Penn Center for MSIs (CMSI). During my time there, I had the chance to meet MSI presidents, faculty and students from across the country and get involved in research that has really helped me understand the importance and value of these institutions. I can attest first-hand to all the wonderful work that CMSI does to support these institutions—from providing professional development to MSI faculty members to encouraging MSI students to pursue graduate degrees to creating partnerships that provide funding to send MSI students abroad. Even though I am not there this year to give my time to supporting these wonderful programs, I did make sure to donate.
My giving to my alma mater this year was an act of love and gratitude. My giving to CMSI was a political act. It was a move in direct opposition to the narrative that MSIs are inferior institutions- that anything designed by or for people of color is somehow second-class. The media is rife with stories about how some MSIs are failing institutions, struggling with graduation rates and poor money management. They question their relevancy, suggest that there is minimal return on investment in these institutions, and want to merge them with PWIs.
What they don’t tell us is that many MSIs have been doing more with less. They are building up communities of color, accepting and educating students with a range of abilities and preparedness, meeting them where they are and providing them with a college level education—all with fewer resources. For example, in some states, like North Carolina, flagship institutions have received twice as much in state funding per student as HBCUs. Many state funding formulas were designed to give more money to “institutions where the majority of students who attend are overrepresented in public higher education.”
I could spend hours explaining all the reasons why this is a real shame, but instead I will challenge you to learn more about the value of MSIs and their impact on communities of color. Maybe you have a sibling or parent who attended one. Or maybe, like me, you are the first in your family to even go to college and you know very little about different institutional types. The CMSI website is full of great resources and keeps a running list of MSIs. Learn a little bit more about an MSI near you, or an organization like CMSI that advocates for them, and consider giving this season.
Briana O’Neal holds an M.S.Ed in Higher Education from the University of Pennsylvania and currently works at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her interests include underrepresented students in higher education, minority serving institutions, and transfer pathways for community college students. She is a former research assistant at the Penn Center for MSIs.