Minority Serving Institutions: The keeper in My Brother's Keeper

This year, President Obama launched My Brother's Keeper, an initiative aimed at empowering and supporting young men of color across the country. This initiative is vital and admirable. And, although there has been some glancing in the direction of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and their role in changing the lives of black men, there has been little emphasis on the role that the nearly 600 Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) throughout the nation play in the lives of men of color. Consider these numbers if you doubt the role of MSIs, which represent only 7.8 percent of all colleges and universities, in empowering men of color:

  • MSIs educate 20 percent of all college and university students. That's 3.6 million students.
  • Thirty-six percent of men of color with full-time college enrollment are at MSIs. 
  • Nearly 50 percent of men of color with part-time college enrollment are at MSIs.
  • MSIs enroll over 25 percent of men of color across racial and ethnic groups (blacks, Hispanics, Asian/Pacific Islanders and Native Americans).
  • MSIs confer 24 percent of the bachelor's degrees earned by men of color.
  • MSIs confer 22 percent of the associate's degrees earned by men of color.

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To ignore MSIs — HBCUs, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions — is to leave out a large number of low-income, often underprepared, men of color. Moreover, MSIs have a long history of success educating men of color — a history that can teach us valuable lessons.

Over the last 20 years, I have learned valuable lessons from the students, faculty and staff who work within MSIs. I offer them below:

  • MSIs teach us that it is crucial to create environments focused on success in which the potential of people of color is placed first and foremost. 
  • MSIs involve men of color in culturally relevant problem-solving as part of the learning process, which leads to increased retention and attainment. 
  • MSIs collect data on the "choke points" that impede the success of men of color. Once identified, MSIs rid the curriculum of these choke points rather than continuing to watch men of color fail, blaming them instead of looking inward at the actions of the institution. 
  • MSIs provide men of color with role models by miraculously having the ability to not only hire men of color in faculty and administrative posts, but also retain them. 
  • MSIs offer men of color opportunities to learn from communities from which they come, instead of merely privileging mainstream communities.

Given the enormous and disproportionate role that MSIs play in the lives of young men of color, it seems that they are the keeper of many of the secrets to empowerment and success among this group. Shining a bright light on MSIs and the role that they play, the lessons they offer and the expertise that they have honed is the key to taking care of our men of color.

Gasman is professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Samayoa and Nguyen are Ph.D. candidates and research assistants at the Center.