Minority Serving Institutions left out of community college conversation

The day after President Obama announced his proposal to make two years of community college free across the nation, we received a call at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) asking us what we thought the impact of the president's proposal might be for MSIs. However, later that evening, we received an email from the same reporter notifying us that none of the MSI-related information was included in the news story — a news story that focused on the ramifications of President Obama's decision on other types of institutions.

Minority Serving Institutions educate 3.6 million college students — 20 percent of all college undergraduates. There are nearly 600 of these institutions and they are important. All too often, they are left out of conversations, news stories, policy discussions and research. If you are looking for another example, consider the My Brother's Keeper Initiative. The report issued as part of the initiative includes one line pertaining to MSIs, despite the fact that the author was briefed extensively on MSIs and that 50 percent of men of color are enrolled at two-year MSIs and nearly 30 percent are enrolled at four-year MSIs. Minority Serving Institutions are continually left out of important conversations.

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And here's an interesting fact: nearly 250 MSIs are two-year colleges — this represents 46 percent of all MSIs and over one-fifth (22 percent) of all community colleges in the nation. In addition, the student profile at some four-year MSIs is similar to that of the community college student; making two years of community college free will have an impact on their livelihood unless we are purposeful in our design of forthcoming initiatives.

Because nearly half of MSIs are community colleges, Obama's proposal is exciting. First, it shines a light on the important work that community colleges do and could do with regard to bringing more and diverse students to college. MSI community colleges represent the enormous diversity of our nation and supporting them will solidify our knowledge base in the future. Two-year institutions that are also Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs); Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs); Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs); and Asian-American, Native American, and Pacific Islander Serving Institutions (AANAPISIs) will likely benefit from increased enrollment and greater attention to their value.

However, there is room for concern. For example, less selective, four-year MSIs may be concerned as they often draw similar students to that of community colleges to their campuses. But with states turning to outcomes-based funding, many MSIs were already becoming more selective and establishing articulation agreements with community colleges. If Obama's proposal comes to fruition, more four-year MSIs might see themselves working more closely with community colleges.

As we see increases in transfers from community colleges to MSIs, we hope we will also see greater investment in developing a more robust Integrated Postsecondary Data System to reflect the success of transfer students at MSIs (and all institutions), beyond the upcoming Outcome Measures survey rolling out later this year. Given the changes in the way students attend college, it's time that we let go of measuring institutional success based on first-time, full-time students' graduation and focus on the student mobility that is now part of students' "typical" experience in their postsecondary education.

Another change that will take place if Obama is successful pertains to the mission of MSIs. Community college MSIs will not see their mission change; it will likely be enhanced. However, many less-selective, four-year MSIs could experience a sweeping change in their mission of serving underprepared students, as these students will more than likely attend community colleges if they are free. Changing this mission may strengthen — in terms of performance outcomes — these less selective, four-year MSIs, but we may also see some dissonance given the historic mission of many MSIs, especially some HBCUs.

Overall, the conversation around community colleges is a plus for MSIs and an opportunity for the general public, the federal government, foundations and state legislatures to take note that MSIs are an important part of the conversation if we are to aspire and attain better educational standards for the country as a whole.

Gasman is professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Samayoa is a Ph.D. candidate and research assistant at the Center.