Students at the margins and the institutions that serve them

Due to unprecedented shifts in patterns of immigration and migration, the world’s demographics are rapidly changing. Countries that were once homogeneous are now much more heterogeneous in terms of race, ethnicity and religion.

As a result, many countries are finding the need to create more educational opportunities and experiences for a greater number of the world’s citizens and, in some cases, to sustain their own existence (for example, Germany).

Even countries that are not enormous recipients of immigrants (that is, China) or are experiencing hefty out-migration (that is, South Africa), but have substantial populations of disadvantaged minorities, are finding the urgency to address historic disparities in terms of education and socio-economic status.

In the United States, historically black colleges and universities – HBCUs – have a long track record of building and contributing to the development of the black middle-class.

These institutions were created during a time of great segregation and oppression in the US, but have since continued, even during an era of integration, to educate the black population as well as many other low-income and minority students.

Much like HBCUs, tribal colleges and universities were created out of a movement by Native Americans to educate Native Americans living in or near tribal communities. As the nation has grown more and more diverse, both Hispanic serving institutions and Asian American and Pacific Islander serving institutions have emerged to serve these populations.

Overall, minority serving institutions, or MSIs, in the US face similar challenges – underprepared, low income students as well as scarce resources – and have similar strengths – culturally-based curricula, a nurturing and empowering campus environment.

A global phenomenon

Like minority serving institutions in the United States, there are colleges and universities around the globe serving the educational needs of marginalised racial, ethnic and religious groups.

In 2007, 39 Australian universities partnered to found Universities Australia in an effort to represent the state’s university sector nationally and internationally.

An important part of the work of Universities Australia has been its role in forging reconciliatory relationships with Aboriginal peoples. As Universities Australia states, these institutions “are committed to playing their part to 'close the gap' in Indigenous disadvantage in Australia”.

In Brazil, the current landscape for post-secondary education is undergoing drastic changes. In August 2012, for instance, Brazilian legislation decreed a ‘Law of Social Quotas’ for the nation’s public universities.

Consequently, all 59 public universities in the country are required to: 1) reserve half of all new entries for students from Brazilian public schools (where the majority of students are of African descent); and 2) reserve half of these spots (25% of the total) for people of indigenous ancestry in numbers relative to their populations within each state.

In China, over the past 30 years, the government has sought to shift access to higher education from elitism to universalism. Since the 1980s, China has enacted preferential policies for ethnic minorities – identified as such due to the linguistic variability across China’s provinces.

Despite these efforts, the percentage of ethnic minority students enrolled in colleges and universities is still below the percentage of minorities in the Chinese population and has fallen since 1998.

China has used two approaches towards greater educational attainment for ethnic minorities: establishing higher education institutions specific for ethnic minorities, and introducing preferential policies that give ethnic minorities ‘bonus points’ in the entrance exams that students sit in order to determine which higher education institutions they can attend.

South Africa, much like the United States, has a number of historically black universities or what are often referred to as historically disadvantaged institutions.

These institutions have been folded into the larger higher education system, which is now very diverse, but they have not received equitable funding and are considered sub-par by many in the country. Like HBCUs in the US, South Africa’s black universities have a long history of civil rights activism and engagement.

Creating a global network

Beginning on 11 October, through to 16 October, the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions is co-sponsoring the first international gathering on minority serving institutions throughout the world with Educational Testing Service, the Kresge Foundation, and the Salzburg Global Seminar.

Through the seminar, we are bringing together scholars, practitioners, funders, policy-makers, students and activists to discuss and act in favour of minority serving institutions across the globe and the students that they serve.

Bringing together leaders from minority serving institutions with scholars who care about finding solutions to these institutions’ challenges and capitalising on their common strengths creates a rich learning experience across nations. For too long institutions have operated in a vacuum, failing to collaborate across institutional types and across nations.

The goals of the seminar include:
  • • Creating a global network of individuals and institutions interested in understanding the unique challenges and opportunities for minority serving institutions.
  • • Developing a database for MSIs across the globe, so these institutions can have a common reference point for generating and sharing knowledge and research ideas.
  • • Finding strategies that have been successful for MSIs around the world, and looking for ways these best practices can be replicated.
  • • Examining the effect on higher education of unprecedented shifts in patterns of immigration and migration that are making countries much more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity and religion.
We hope that you will follow the work taking place during the seminar on Facebook and Twitter #SalzburgMSI

The more individuals we engage globally around the empowerment of students of colour, the better their lives will be.

* Marybeth Gasman is professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, USA, and also directs the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Andrés Castro Samayoa is a PhD student in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and serves as a research assistant at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.