Supporting Minority Serving Institutions in Illinois

By Corinne Kodama, Senior Research Analyst, Women Employed

Higher education in Illinois is a crossroads, coming out of a pandemic that has created disproportionate challenges for community college students, student parents, and Students of Color. Coupled with a growing awareness among the general public about persistent racial equity gaps in higher education, it is time for Illinois to take action, and supporting our Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) across the state should be a part of that solution.

Before Women Employed, I worked at a minority-serving institution in a federally funded Asian American Native American and Pacific Islander (AANAPISI) initiative, which provided targeted programs and services to Asian American and Pacific Islander students. While small in scope, I saw these academic, cocurricular, and support programs help students adjust to college, feel a sense of belonging, understand their histories and place in the world, and explore career paths. Students told us that our Asian American-centered curriculum inspired them and kept them in school, that culturally sensitive faculty and staff empowered them and encouraged them to persist, and that the high numbers of fellow Asian American students made them feel less alone and more supported through challenging times.

What our program did was not unique among MSIs: make Students of Color feel like the norm, not the exception; ensure they see staff and faculty who look like them and teach them about their histories; offer activities and programs that address nuances of their family and economic situations, experiences with racism and discrimination, and the many other personal, academic, and cultural challenges related to pursuing a college education. These programs have research proving their effectiveness in retaining students at other AANAPISIs, Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), and Predominantly Black Institutions (PBIs), but they are often overlooked, underfunded, and frankly underutilized. Illinois alone has 34 Minority Serving Institutions, equally divided between two- and four-year institutions―more than most states outside of California, Florida, and Texas. However, developing programs to serve high numbers of Students of Color and low-income students is not easy, and federal grants are few, highly competitive, and difficult to apply for.

MSIs are designated as such based on a certain percentage of Students of Color as well as students from low-income households. We recently surveyed and met with staff and faculty from Illinois MSIs and found that they often felt under-resourced and misunderstood, both within and outside their campus. There was a lack of clarity over what it meant to be an MSI and how to navigate complicated grant application processes. While most Illinois MSIs have not received federal grants, some have years of experience developing and administering programs which have successfully helped Students of Color better navigate and succeed in higher education. We should learn from their expertise.

As part of the state of Illinois’ commitment to improving racial equity in higher education, we should be creative in finding ways to promote and support our MSIs. These institutions are already serving students who can most benefit from additional investment to help them successfully navigate the challenges of higher education. This could take the form of additional funding, technical assistance, convening, and facilitating a network. Other states such as Arizona, California, Nevada, and Texas have done as much — whether through state-led initiatives, institutional leaders, or education agencies.

It is clear that there is no shortage of solutions to address racial equity gaps in higher education. Women Employed outlined some promising solutions in our companion briefs, Advancing Racial Equity in Higher Education, released in 2020. Supporting minority serving institutions is an important step to fulfilling Illinois’ commitment to racial equity in higher education.

Resources to Learn More:

Espinosa, Lorelle L., Robert Kelchen, and Morgan Taylor. 2018. Minority Serving Institutions as Engines of Upward Mobility. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.

Rutgers GSE Center for MSIs: What are MSIs? Minority Serving Institutions Frequently Asked Questions and Answers.

Hegji, A (2017). Programs for Minority-Serving Institutions Under the Higher Education Act. Congressional Research Service.

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