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Lessons for Minority Serving Institutions for Highlighting Return on Investment

By William Casey Boland & Marybeth Gasman


William Casey Boland and Marybeth GasmanMinority Serving Institutions (MSIs) matter. This is made evident by the millions of dollars that foundations as well as the federal government invest in them every year. For instance, the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions received a $5.1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to boost the number of Hispanic faculty across the nation. Likewise, the federal government awarded nearly $762 million to all MSIs in fiscal year 2015. MSIs enrolled 40% of all students of color in the 2013-2014 academic year, totaling approximately 3.8 million students or 26% of all college students. Yet many still are unaware or doubt the efficacy of MSIs to educate and graduate students. For this reason, the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions along with several partner organizations launched a data-centered campaign to highlight the multitude of MSI achievements. The campaign displayed 52 data points over 52 weeks that demonstrated how MSIs advance student success.

There are several lessons learned from the MSI data points campaign. This includes both lessons for institutions as well as for us at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

1. Show the numbers. We can’t emphasize this point enough: MSIs must show what they do through data points. A core purpose of the campaign was to encourage MSIs to convey their strengths and accomplishments to a larger public. We saw this as especially important given the preference of most policy makers and foundations for hard data demonstrating the return on investment (ROI) of higher education institutions. For example, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) enrolled 8% and graduated 15% of all Black students in U.S. higher education in 2013.

2. Lack of quality data. Many colleges – not just MSIs – lack the capacity to monitor much of what they do statistically. The federal government requires many metrics to be recorded annually, information publicly available via the National Center for Education Statistics’ IPEDS surveys. Yet student-level data remains wanting and is for the most restricted-use. This makes it more difficult for researchers to better investigate and demonstrate what MSIs do and how they do it. An example of the power of student-level data to show the power of MSIs were several studies done on Texas MSIs by Stella Flores of New York University and Toby Park of the University of Florida. For instance, in one study they used private student-level data to show that graduates from Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI) in Texas earn similar salaries to those from non-HSIs when controlling for institutional selectivity.

3. Lack of unity across MSI categories. The Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions is the only international organization with comprehensive data on all categories of MSIs. More organizations focused on MSIs are needed. More data are needed. This is not to take away from the important work done by the many organizations focusing their energy on individual categories of MSIs; these organizations are vital. Similarly, MSIs still largely operate in silos. Perhaps more can be done to unify MSIs across federal-funding demarcation lines, especially in terms of sharing knowledge on services and data collection.

Ten HBCUs among top 20 institutions that award the most science and engineering degrees to Blacks4. Advancing the measurements. While most MSI services and accomplishments are impressive, not all are as easily quantifiable measured. MSIs should consider how to better measure those qualities, potentially through surveys and interviews. MSIs could also use their creative brainpower to develop new metrics that better capture the essence of what MSIs do well. For example, Ginger C. Stull and Stephanie Carroll Rainie contend that institutions such as Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) can promote atypical ROI measures created by the institutions themselves rather than from external forces. Such metrics could include critical thinking, self-esteem, leadership, and community engagement. These are areas where MSIs excel, yet they are also those that require more ingenuity to quantify.

5. Follow the money. Most MSIs face funding challenges. Though some states nudged up appropriations over the past few years, the share of total core revenues coming from the state government has been shrinking in all public institutions. It is imperative that MSIs continue to maximize alternative revenue sources. Pressure should still be applied to policymakers to maintain funding levels. Yet a windfall from nearly any state is highly unlikely. Many MSIs could apply for research funding. It’s also important to note that much of an MSI’s federal funding is awarded through competitive grants. Most of these are awarded for five years and then an MSI must apply again. Funding at the federal level via Title III and V of the Higher Education Act is not likely to change. Yet perhaps it is worth considering other ways the federal government could directly support core operations at MSIs.

6. Program evaluation. MSIs are required by the federal government to assess the efficacy of their federally funded programs based on outcome measures. More can be done to chart individual student success for both those students served in addition to those students enrolled across the entire institution. Most MSIs do not publicize the results of such evaluations or conduct more sophisticated empirical research designs to estimate the true impact of their programs for targeted student populations. Researchers from UCLA and Brown University used an advanced statistical method to measure the impact of a federally-funded MSI program in a Asian American Native American and Pacific Islander Serving Institution (AANAPISI). Their study incorporated student-level data to carefully demonstrate the positive impact of the MSI program on student success in a California AANAPISI community college across several outcome measures.

For more ideas about data collection and highlighting the impact of MSIs on a larger scale, see our new report on return on investment and MSIs, which includes ample suggestions across MSIs as a whole and within individual sectors.

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