Minority Serving Institutions Perform Better Than Federal Graduation Rates Suggest

By Morgan Taylor

July 26, 2017

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By Morgan Taylor

Minority serving institutions (MSIs) are critical to this country’s higher education landscape and to the communities they serve. In providing access to postsecondary education for millions of students of color who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, MSIs stand to play a paramount role in disrupting myriad forms of inequity. In 2014-15, roughly 700 institutions received federal MSI designation, representing approximately 14 percent of all degree-granting, Title IV-eligible institutions of higher education. Collectively, these MSIs enrolled nearly 5 million students of color, or about 28 percent of all undergraduates enrolled in American higher education.

While institutions often grouped together under the term “MSI” differ in terms of institutional mission, characteristics, student body demographics, and the legal terms under which they gain federal recognition, they all share a common link in their commitment to providing access for and educating low-income students of color. As the higher education student population continues to diversify, we predict the number of MSIs will grow, calling for higher education researchers, leaders, practitioners, and policymakers to better understand how these institutions serve their students and provide a unique space for student success.

A new report out from ACE’s Center for Policy Research and Strategy, Pulling Back the Curtain: Enrollment and Outcomes at Minority Serving Institutions, uses data from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) to examine enrollment and outcomes of students who began their college education at an MSI in 2007. The first study to utilize these data in examining outcomes at MSIs, the report aims to provide a more complete picture of the contributions MSIs make to the higher education landscape and the communities within which they reside. We examined data for four of the seven MSI types: Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Predominantly Black Institutions (PBIs), Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions (AANAPISIs).

What We Found

Taking enrollment and outcomes separately, we first found that students who attend MSIs do not fit the profile of traditional college students captured through the federal graduation rate: someone who enrolls full time in college, typically the fall after graduating from high school. Rather, the majority of students who enroll at MSIs fit a non-traditional student profile, and may be transfer, returning, or part-time students. Students at MSIs, in fact, predominantly enroll through “mixed enrollment,” meaning they move between full-time and part-time enrollment status.

Looking to student outcomes, we next found that completion rates for MSIs are higher than the federal rate suggests. As with other institutions who primarily enroll non-traditional students, the federal graduation rate of MSIs captures only a small segment of the total student population. Across all two-year and four-year MSIs included in the study, the total completion rate for students enrolled exclusively full time—the NSC sub-cohort most comparable to the cohort used to calculate traditional graduation rates—were higher than the federal rate. This is because data from NSC allow for tracking students across institutions and states, providing a more complete understanding of how students who begin at MSIs move through higher education than what federal data can capture. Importantly, we also found that the total completion rate for all students, regardless of enrollment intensity, was higher than the federal graduation rate in many cases.

Some highlights include:

  • The NSC total completion rate for public four-year Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) was 43 percent, and increased to nearly 62 percent for students who enrolled exclusively full time. Comparatively, the federal graduation rate was 34.1 percent.
  • Using NSC data, exclusively full-time students at private four-year HBCUs had a completion rate of 66.7 percent, compared to a federal graduation rate of 43.9 percent.
  • The NSC total completion rate for all students at public four-year Predominantly Black Institutions was 34.1 percent. Students enrolled exclusively full time had a higher completion rate of nearly 52 percent, compared to a federal graduation rate of 16.6 percent.
  • The completion rate for exclusively full-time students at public two-year Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) was 40.3 percent using NSC data, compared to the federal graduation rate of 25.5 percent.
  • The NSC total completion rate for all students at public four-year HSIs was approximately 50 percent, and increased to 74.1 percent for exclusively full-time students. In comparison, the federal graduation rate was 42.7 percent.
  • NSC data reveal a completion rate of nearly 88 percent for exclusively full-time students at public four-year Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions, compared to 66.2 percent using the federal graduation rate.

Beyond the Numbers

These findings call for both the improvement of student outcomes data, as well as greater transparency and understanding of what data do and do not tell us, especially for policy- and other decision-makers. And while the data speak volumes, we know that data alone do not tell the whole story of how MSIs work to ensure the success of their students. Therefore, interspersed throughout the report, essays from scholars who study MSIs provide a deeper understanding of MSIs beyond the data, highlighting what makes each MSI type unique in creating spaces for their students to thrive.

Beyond the numbers, MSIs have implemented policies and practices that work to increase student success. Some examples include:

  • HBCUs that utilize peer-to-peer mentoring to create a sense of community among students where they support one another both with their academic work and in their personal lives;
  • PBIs who invest their MSI grant funding into the creation of student support centers and establishing financial counseling services to support at-risk students;
  • HSIs that develop partnerships with their community’s local high schools to create dual enrollment programs and who provide cultural competency professional development opportunities for faculty to better understand the backgrounds and needs of their students, and;
  • AANAPISIs who use learning communities to create environments that provide assistance for students transferring from remedial to college-level courses.

However, sustaining and expanding upon these practices requires the institutional capacity and resources with which to do so. MSIs’ role in the higher education landscape is critical for the education of millions of students of color. If higher education is the vehicle for upward socioeconomic mobility, we must increase investment in MSIs. Doing so will allow these institutions to strengthen their capacity to provide greater access to college and help their students succeed. Ensuring the success of students of color requires further investment in the very institutions that educate them.

To review the full analysis and learn more about what makes MSIs unique in serving students of color, access the report here.

If you have any questions or comments about this blog post, please contact us.

About the Author

Morgan Taylor

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