Minority Serving Institutions and STEM: Acting Intentionally, Increasing Effectiveness

By Lorelle L. Espinosa

June 3, 2019

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ACE Vice President Lorelle L. Espinosa, who co-chaired the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s committee on Minority Serving Institutions, writes that the most successful STEM programs are multidimensional and intentional, addressing the academic, financial, and social aspects of the student experience.

Minority serving institutions (MSIs) are a valuable yet underused resource for diversifying our nation’s STEM workforce. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently released a report identifying initiatives at MSIs that have shown success in increasing the participation and graduation in STEM among students of color. While it’s heartening to be able to pinpoint successful programs, we found that positive results require more than just replicating those programs on another campus. In fact, many of these programs are not new to the more than 700 MSIs around the country, or to higher education as a whole.

But we discovered programs that work have one thing in common: intentionality.

In testimony I recently gave to the House Science Committee, I described intentionality as “meeting students where they are when they arrive on campus, setting high expectations for student success no matter where they start academically, and tailoring programs, services, and institutional policies to recognize and address students’ academic, financial, and social needs—all with cultural mindfulness.”

With this lens in mind, the report synthesizes findings from scholarly research and MSI site visits to identify seven core strategies that show the most promise for cultivating undergraduate student success in STEM fields at MSIs. It’s important to note that these strategies are interrelated: mission-driven leadership is required to foster a positive campus climate, strong partnerships can yield research experiences and mentorships, and so on. But most importantly, these strategies can and should be deployed with intentionality as a key ingredient for success.

Dynamic, multilevel, mission-driven leadership. While institutional leadership is critical at any college or university, leaders at MSIs need to be particularly creative in their approach given their limited resources. In addition to their roles as educators, researchers, and administrators, MSI faculty and staff often take it upon themselves to design, implement, and advocate for initiatives that strengthen STEM education for the students they serve. Support for this shared leadership approach requires transparent communication across formal and informal channels, including with senior leadership. It also requires strengthening leadership training and succession planning.

Institutional responsiveness to student needs. MSIs serve a student population that is largely post-traditional. Students are often balancing work, school, and family, and may be the first in their families to enroll in college. Interventions that address students’ lived experiences—either in or out of STEM fields—are critical to their success. Examples include alternative staff work schedules for students who need support outside of standard work hours, open and free educational resources, blended learning options, transportation and housing assistance, health care services, and capped tuition and fees.

The most successful MSIs intentionally implement student support systems by marrying the specific characteristics of their campus community with the support they offer. For example, some MSIs with large numbers of students whose first language is not English leverage the linguistic assets of their students through bilingual and bicultural programs so they can develop culturally relevant research and communication skills.

Campus climates that support a sense of belonging. Many MSIs excel at creating campus climates that foster a sense of family for students. Their methods include prioritizing safe spaces such as cultural centers, student-centered coursework, and an equity-minded culture that sets high expectations for students no matter where they start academically. Some MSIs offer community-relevant research and workforce training that builds on students’ desire to give back to their communities. Others have created STEM-focused learning communities where students can learn and live with peers who have similar academic and career interests. This strategy is not unique to MSIs, but it is strengthened by a climate that is intentional about sense of belonging.

Student-centered academic and social supports. Integrating academic and social supports is particularly effective for students of color in STEM, especially when faculty and staff approach students as talent to be cultivated, not problems to fix. Approaches highlighted in the report include supplemental instruction, bridge programs, faculty, peer, and near-peer mentoring, and culturally-responsive pedagogy in STEM. Multifaceted tactics intentionally leverage a multitude of campus programs and initiatives and are most successful when leaders prioritize regular evaluations that inform ongoing improvement.

Effective mentorship and sponsorship. Formal and informal mentorship is a frequent strategy MSIs use to promote student success in STEM, and is particularly effective when faculty themselves are racially and ethnically diverse. Successful MSIs prioritize professional development and mentorship training for faculty and staff, while others leverage peer and near-peer mentoring.

Undergraduate research experiences. Particularly in the STEM fields, undergraduate research is an excellent predictor of degree completion and success, including graduate school enrollment. Research mentoring programs in STEM provide an avenue for faculty-student mentorship and allow students to see themselves as future scientists and STEM professionals. The most effective components of this experience are deep immersion into the culture of laboratory research and participation in a sustained, rather than short-term, research experience. Successful undergraduate research programs at MSIs further integrate other academic, social, and financial supports, again aiming for a holistic approach to student success.

Mutually beneficial public- and private-sector partnerships. While these partnerships carry benefits for all institutions, they are especially impactful for MSIs given limited institutional resources. Through public- and private-sector partnerships, as well as cross-institutional partnerships, MSIs can secure educational and research funding and support, increase their capacity, and broaden STEM opportunities for students and faculty. MSIs that have benefited the most from public-private partnerships have intentionally built new infrastructure, prioritized leadership training and professional development for faculty and staff, and embraced modern ways of thinking to be partnership-ready.


Effectively supporting STEM students of color is not about replication or even scale, but about the spirit in which these seven strategies are implemented. It is worth stating again that the above strategies are not new or unique to MSIs. What is unique, and what makes the most successful MSIs stand apart from their MSI and non-MSI peers, is a culture of intentionality. Namely, working across specific and multiple dimensions of the student experience—academic, financial, social—and doing so with an appreciation and deep respect for students’ cultural identities and the assets they bring.

Rooted in this approach are a multitude of lessons for both the nation’s current MSIs that enroll roughly one-third of all undergraduates, as well as for what are known as “emerging” MSIs—those on the verge of reaching a critical mass of students of color. Hundreds more MSIs will come into existence in the coming years and will need to build and sustain new approaches to enrolling, retaining, and graduating students of color. Moreover, as some of the country’s most underresourced institutions, new and long-standing MSIs require the resources to successfully enact these strategies. With proper investment, MSIs have the potential to greatly strengthen and diversify our country’s STEM workforce and ensure America’s global preeminence in STEM productivity and innovation.

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

About the Author

Lorelle L. Espinosa


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