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New open data project helps clarify, contextualize Minority-Serving Institutions


Kresge’s Education Program recently helped fund a data project aimed at advancing a greater understanding of Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) and their unique contribution to postsecondary education. The Minority-Serving Institutions Data Project was conducted by the team of Mike Hoa Nguyen, Sophia Laderman, Joe Ramirez and Kelsey Heckert. To learn more about the study and the importance of these classifications, Kresge Communications Officer Tracey Pearson asked the team to share some insights about how the data project can be used, ways funding may be tied to an institution’s designation and historical challenges to clearly identifying MSIs. The data project is open and accessible to the general public, and datasets are free for viewing and download. We encourage those who are interested and invested in the success of MSIs to utilize the data to support and inform their work.

Q: Why do you believe a standardized definition of MSIs is important?

A: Minority-Serving Institutions are unique in their ability to support the educational advancement of students of color. Approximately one in five postsecondary institutions are eligible for funding under an MSI designation, yet more than half of all undergraduate students of color are enrolled in such colleges and universities.

MSIs offer resources for some of the most racially and ethnically diverse colleges and universities across the United States, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands. Given their outsized role in educating students of color, there is growing interest among institutional leaders, researchers and policymakers in understanding and assessing MSIs and the federal programs that support them.

Mike Hoa Nguyen
Mike Hoa Nguyen, Director & Principal Investigator, MSI Data Project

Yet, as MSIs become increasingly supported and scrutinized, there continue to be disagreements and confusion about how to define MSIs. Researchers, policymakers, advocacy organizations, and even institutions themselves have advanced different approaches as to what might be considered an MSI. This disagreement has subsequently impacted the analysis and results of research studies, policy arguments and agendas, and institutional practices. As a result of inconsistent definitions, a wide range and varying number of institutions are included in MSI-based studies and policy proposals.

In turn, data regarding commonly referenced metrics (number of MSIs; enrollment, retention, completion rates), or studies that examine the efficacy of MSI funding on supporting students of color often utilize data that is contractionary or perhaps inaccurate. This has led to widespread differences in findings, with serious and potentially harmful implications for public policy and practice.

Given these contrasting constructions of MSIs, the purpose of the Minority-Serving Institutions Data Project is three-fold. First, we argue for a uniform approach as to how MSIs are constructed and defined. The second purpose is to offer a standardized typology that can be used to describe the status of an MSI. And third, we provide a public database of MSIs based on our approach. We assert that this approach will yield more accuracy to the description and study of MSIs, which will greatly benefit and inform the work of institutional leaders, advocates, policymakers and the greater MSI research community – with the goal of supporting and serving students of color.

Q: How many MSI classifications are there and why do you think classification has been so complex historically?

A: Each MSI designation was established by Congress at different times, thus creating a patchwork of how and which institutions may be eligible, and what their missions are. Through our typology, we classify MSIs into 11 different designations. This classification system maintains fidelity to federal statute, as this is where designations receive their congressional appropriations. The 11 MSI designations are:

  • Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian-Serving Institutions (ANNHSI)
  • Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions (AANAPISI)
  • Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI)
  • HSI Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics and Articulation Programs (HSI STEM)
  • HSI Promoting Postbaccalaureate Opportunities for Hispanic Americans (HSI PPOHA)
  • Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU)
  • Historically Black Colleges and Universities Graduate Institutions (HBGI)
  • Historically Black Colleges and Universities Masters Institutions (HBCU Masters)
  • Native American-Serving Nontribal Institutions (NASNTI)
  • Predominantly Black Institutions (PBI)
  • Controlled Colleges and Universities (TCCU)

Similar to other MSI scholars, we categorize MSIs into two distinct groups, those that are enrollment-based and those that are mission-based. Enrollment-based MSIs are historically white institutions that have reached a federally-defined demographic threshold in order to qualify for their MSI status (Table 1). They contrast with mission-based MSIs (HBCUs, HBGIs, HBCU Masters and TCCUs), which were established with the specific purpose of addressing the educational needs of their respective communities, rather than a change in demographics.

In this way, there is a major distinction between enrollment-based MSIs and their mission-based counterparts, as the status of enrollment-based MSIs may change from year to year, while the status of most mission-based MSIs are much more consistent.

Sophia Laderman
Sophia Laderman, Co-Principal Investigator, MSI Data Project

Unlike mission-based MSIs, enrollment-based MSIs are very difficult to define, because their student populations and financial characteristics shift over time, leading to confusion and contradictions regarding how these MSIs are defined and discussed. Enrollment-based MSIs have separate eligibility standards per Department of Education (ED) regulations and statute.

These regulations require that the institution maintain a certain proportion of undergraduate enrollment for a specific racial or ethnic group. Beyond enrollment metrics, institutions must meet a second finance-based requirement, which was designed to ensure that MSI funds are directed to institutions that have fewer resources and enroll a larger proportion of low-income students, per Section 312(b) of the Higher Education Act.

Adding further complication, institutions can waive the finance-based requirements in certain circumstances. In addition, for enrollment-based MSIs, their status as an MSI is not something that is fixed and remains with an institution for all-time; rather, it is something that may shift in conjunction with its changing student population and/or expenditures.

Defining and identifying MSIs is further complicated by the fact that there is a waiver process for institutions that do not meet the stated guidelines. The waiver provides an avenue for being identified as an MSI even when an institution’s metrics fall outside the stated guidelines for a particular designation. Another complicating factor involves campuses that are potentially eligible for multiple designations and how to accurately describe and classify their MSI standing.

Furthermore, we categorize enrollment-based MSIs into two groups: institutions that meet a specific MSI’s eligibility standards, and institutions that are funded under one of the aforementioned ED MSI designations. This approach provides additional and necessary context to establish if institutions are currently funded or not. Doing so is important because it recognizes that, beyond meeting certain student population and financial characteristics required for eligibility, an institution was intentional in applying for and receiving a competitive ED award to enhance the educational experiences for a specific student population. This approach is beneficial as it also sharpens MSI scholarship. Scholars have argued that some enrollment-based MSIs operate in a manner that inadequately serves their respective populations. However, prior research has often grouped together all potentially eligible institutions rather than examining only those that are funded MSIs.

Thus, our proposed categorizations will enhance research that aims to conduct comparisons among institutions (for example, funded MSIs to other funded MSIs vs. eligible MSIs). Utilizing the “eligible” and “funded” typologies provides more context to the intentionality of an institution and provides a meaningful metric for researchers and policymakers to determine the efficacy of MSI funding. Additionally, as more institutions meet “dual” or “multiple designations,” this typology is helpful to determine precisely which MSI category an institution is eligible and/or funded under.

The goal of the MSI Data Project is to reconcile the current ambiguity and contradictions discussed above by advancing a more systematic format that clarifies and provides precise definitions for MSIs.

Indeed, this approach is simply a starting point, rather than a definitive conclusion, to assist the ongoing research, practice and policymaking that will expand our collective understandings and imaginations of what Minority-Serving Institutions are, can and should be.

Q: The data project is available for public consumption; how do you envision the data being used?

A: Our goal was to build a tool and resource for the broader MSI community – students, researchers, practitioners, college leaders, advocates and policymakers – to support their goals for future research, practice, action and advocacy. Our intention for the database to be publicly available is for anyone to download and use individually.

Joseph Ramirez
Joseph Ramirez, Co-Principal Investigator, MSI Data Project

For example, institution-level users (students, faculty, staff, broader community) can access the data to understand their institution’s own eligibility and history. Researchers can merge our database with their own datasets to study a phenomenon of their interest. We believe that this will open up new lines of inquiry, for a wide range of research agendas to intersect with the study of MSIs. Some examples include research on STEM, Title IX, gainful employment, campus racial climate, college access, affordability, return on investment, creating a sense of belonging, community development, the list can go on.

This is ripe for equity-based interdisciplinary collaborations all across educational sectors. Early versions of our database have been used to examine equity in federal funding formulas within the CARES Act, as well as a policy brief on MSIs and College Promise programs. We are now beginning to conduct outreach to the broader MSI community in order to gather feedback on our database, as well as refine our tools, develop new visualizations, and construct new variables that would be most helpful to advance the collective interests of MSIs.

Q: How could the data be used to close equity gaps on campuses?

A: Closing equity gaps was one of the main drivers for us to create the MSI Data Project. We know that in order to advance advocacy agendas and implement new educational interventions to address equity on campus, consistent research on and with MSIs is needed. As researchers, our aim is to always study and measure as accurately as possible. This is especially important when working with marginalized communities and towards reducing educational inequality. And so, our first step is to make sure that the data we use in this work is as accurate and current as possible.

Kelsey Heckert
Kelsey Heckert
Investigator, MSI Data Project

For example, perhaps an institution, not identified as an MSI under the federal guidelines, is found to serve students of color much better than those which are identified. Such findings could offer important suggestions for policy changes. Additionally, if institutions are receiving federal MSI funds but are not serving students of color well, this would be an important consideration to amend practices and policies so that federal funding is used in the manner in which it was intended. Furthermore, research can better examine the complexity of aligning institutional priorities with federal expectations and how effective MSIs are at serving their specific student population. This will enhance the ability for students, practitioners, researchers and policymakers to assess, improve and uplift the ongoing and critical work of MSIs.

We believe that our approach offers a mechanism to place these critical issues into necessary context. In other words, by knowing if an MSI is eligible or funded, and under which specific MSI designation, a researcher can then conduct a study that investigates why funding was pursued and what approaches were used to meet eligibility requirements.

If a study does not begin with that requisite context, we believe that the study could potentially misidentify an MSI, and would yield less actionable interventions and implications, for both institutions and the federal MSI programs. Through a uniform approach to define MSIs, these limitations, many of which currently exist due to the lack of a standardized approach to define MSIs, would be better addressed in future studies with the adoption of our definitions and typology.

Q: There is a federal funding element tied to MSI designations, can you talk about how institutions might use this data to advocate for investment?

A: Federal funding is inextricably tied to being an MSI. The MSI Data Project is unique in that we document if and when an institution has received funding from the U.S. Department of Education. This accurate accounting will allow researchers to more precisely examine funding ratios and formulas, in order to make comparisons between non-MSIs and MSIs, including the opportunity to compare over time.

MSI advocates can also examine funding allocations at the designation level to better understand how the growth of eligible MSIs may outpace the congressional appropriations. Thus, we hope that our data will allow the MSI community to advance an advocacy agenda that enhances meaningful and intentional investment in MSIs and the students of color who attend these amazing institutions.

Q: The data goes through 2021. Are there plans to revisit the data and update?

A: Absolutely! As of now, our longitudinal dataset covers only five years from 2017 to 2021. Our hope is to continue adding more historical data, going back into the past, as well as adding additional years moving forward in time. Given that enrollment-based MSIs can change from year to year, we believe it would be beneficial for all stakeholders to have access to current longitudinal MSI data.

We are extremely grateful to The Kresge Foundation for their support of this project. Without their investment, The MSI Data Project would not have been possible. We hope to continue this wonderful collaboration, with the shared goal of providing data and resources for the MSI community.

The team behind the creation of the MSI Date Project include: Mike Hoa Nguyen, assistant professor at New York University; Sophia Laderman, associate vice president at State Higher Education Executive Officers Association; Joseph Ramirez, institutional research and assessment associate at the California Institute of Technology; and Kelsey Heckert, data manager at State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.