Minority-Serving Colleges and Universities Are Positioned to Serve as a Greater Resource for Meeting U.S. STEM Workforce Needs

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Higher education leaders, policymakers, and the private sector should take a range of actions to strengthen STEM programs and degree attainment in the nation’s Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. MSIs are underutilized resources for producing talent to fulfill the needs of the nation’s current and future STEM workforce, the report says.

“Given the projected demographic profile of our nation, the educational outcomes and STEM readiness of students of color will have direct implications for American’s economic growth, national security, and global prosperity,” said Lorelle Espinosa, co-chair of the committee that wrote the report, and vice president for research at the American Council on Education.

The report identifies promising strategies to support the long-term success of MSI students in STEM fields. MSIs’ most successful initiatives to support students are distinguished by intentionality: creating initiatives, policies, and practices tailored to meet students where they are in their college careers academically, financially, and socially, and doing so with a cultural mindfulness that moves students toward higher levels of academic achievement and self-confidence.

The report recommends that federal and state agencies, private and corporate foundations, and other stakeholders increase grants and form partnerships that enable implementation of promising strategies. 

Currently there are roughly 700 two- and four-year MSIs, which educate nearly 30 percent of all U.S. undergraduates.  Minority Serving Institutions traditionally fall into two categories. The first category includes Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Tribal Colleges and Universities, which were established for the express purpose of providing access to higher education for a specific minority group. The second includes colleges and universities, such as Hispanic Serving Institutions, that are designated as MSIs by the U.S. Department of Education because they meet thresholds for enrollment (i.e., the percentage of students of color enrolled) and institutional expenditures. Importantly, the number of enrollment-based MSIs has grown significantly in the past 20 years, the report notes, and many more can be expected to emerge in coming decades as the nation’s demographics continue to change.

The report urges the nation to turn to MSIs as high-priority resources for STEM talent. When taken together, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions, and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions currently produce one-fifth of the nation’s STEM bachelor’s degrees. MSIs have markedly fewer financial resources than non-MSIs, and this disparity reduces their capacity to innovate and experiment with programs to support the nation’s workforce, to evaluate them, and to replicate those that prove effective.  Despite their limited resources, MSIs have been successful in providing a multifaceted return on investment for students, communities, and the STEM workforce, the report says. With targeted funding, attention, and support, they can contribute much more.

Based on a review of research literature, available data, and site visits to nine MSIs, the committee found evidence that seven broad strategies hold the greatest promise for strengthening the quality of STEM education and workforce preparation for MSI students:

  • Dynamic, multilevel, mission-driven leaders. Such leaders have a well-articulated vision and a willingness to hold themselves accountable for committing the necessary capital, educational resources, and services to meeting the particular needs of their student body.

  • Institutional responsiveness to meet students where they are. MSIs include a high percentage of low-income and nontraditional students, many of whom self-finance their education and attend school part-time while also working and supporting families. Institutions need to design and implement policies and practices that support students who may need additional academic, financial, and social support and flexibility.

  • Supportive campus environments. A welcoming and nurturing campus climate – one that supports a fundamental sense of community and an equity-oriented culture – contributes to academic attainment and professional commitment at MSIs.

  • Tailored academic and social supports. Intentional policies and practices and holistic supports, such as Summer Bridge programs and supplemental instruction, help guide students through higher education and make an important difference in persistence and success.

  • Mentorship and sponsorship. Strong mentorship is frequently cited in the research literature as key to student success at MSIs.

  • Availability of undergraduate research experiences. These experiences are often important for students who seek to gain entry into graduate programs and professional fields.

  • Mutually beneficial public- and private-sector partnerships. Such collaborations have the potential to provide alternative funding mechanisms and educational and research opportunities for students.

More Investment Needed to Support the Use of Promising Strategies 
Identifying what works at MSIs is only half the battle, the report says; substantial resources are also needed to help advance the success of MSIs and their students. Long-term commitments are needed from federal and state governments, tribal nations, and the philanthropic and private sectors. The report urges these stakeholders to increase funding opportunities in the form of government contracts and competitive and non-competitive grants, and to incentivize and support partnerships that enable promising strategies to be implemented. Targeted investments would enable MSIs to recruit and retain high-quality faculty, to procure and maintain state-of-the-art laboratories and facilities, to offer needed academic and social supports to students, and to compete effectively for access to federal grants and contracts that fuel important research discoveries and innovation.

At the same time, a significant share of responsibility for elevating the role of MSIs in the nation’s educational and infrastructure lies with MSIs themselves, said the committee. “For MSIs to be competitive in the educational marketplace and to contribute to the nation’s overall economic competitiveness, they will require bold leadership and a purposeful commitment to innovate, especially in an era where neither federal nor private funding is plentiful,” said committee co-chair Kent McGuire, program director of education at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

The report offers a range of recommendations to stakeholders, for example:

  • Leaders at MSIs, including emerging and newly established MSIs, should develop policies and practices that create a culture of intentionality upon which evidence-based programs and strategies to support student success are created and sustained.

  • Leadership from within MSIs, non-MSIs, government agencies, private and corporate foundations, and other stakeholders should prioritize efforts to establish or expand mutually beneficial partnerships that support education, research and workforce training for the nation’s current and future STEM workforce.

  • Public and private funders – including federal agencies such as the Department of Education, Department of Defense, and the National Science Foundation, among others; state agencies; tribal nations; and private and corporate foundations -- should continue to develop and expand grant competition programs that serve the nation’s MSIs.

  • As it considers regular adjustments to federal higher education policies and programs – including but not limited to the Higher Education Act – Congress should use the legislative process to incentivize greater investments in MSIs and the strategies outlined in the report.

The study was sponsored by the ECMC Foundation, Helmsley Charitable Trusts, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Wallace Foundation. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions relations to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. For more information, visit http://nationalacademies.org.