Minority-serving institutions are ‘engines of mobility’

Minority-serving tertiary institutions or MSIs propel students up the economic ladder to the top of income distribution at two to three times the rates of non-MSIs, according to a first-of-its-kind analysis from the American Council on Education (ACE), which uses newly released federal data to examine upward income mobility rates.

Despite receiving less financial resources than their non-MSI counterparts, MSIs are doing “more with less”, the data shows, shedding important light on “the value of these institutions as a viable path to greater prosperity for millions of students”, and reinforcing the value proposition of higher education as a “path to greater prosperity for individuals, families, and their communities”, ACE concludes.

The report, Minority Serving Institutions as Engines of Upward Mobility, uses data from the Equality of Opportunity Project (EOP) to show the role higher education has played in promoting upward income mobility by analysing the EOP’s student and parental federal tax returns data from 1996-2014 and postsecondary education data from the US Department of Education.

ACE President Ted Mitchell said: “As a whole, our nation’s higher education system is making a considerable contribution to improving the lives of Americans on the lowest rung of the economic ladder. The data we present make a strong case for increased investment in institutions, particularly MSIs, that are meeting students where they are, and making good on the value of higher education for individuals, families, and communities.”

The key findings include:
  • • One in five students enrolled at four-year Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), and nearly one in four students enrolled at four-year Predominantly Black Institutions (PBIs) and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were from families in the lowest income quintile – more than three times that of non-MSIs. These MSIs also enrolled between 45% and 53% of first-generation college students.

  • • MSIs spend less per student than non-MSIs, but the mobility rate of MSIs was higher than that of non-MSIs. Four-year HSIs, in particular, had a mobility rate – the rate of propelling students from the lowest income quintile to the highest – three times that of non-MSIs.

  • • When examining characteristics of MSIs and non-MSIs with low expenditures (US$25,000 per full-time equivalent student and less), the mobility rate of all four-year MSIs was more than double that of four-year non-MSIs, suggesting that MSIs continue to serve as engines of mobility despite resource constraints.

  • • The extended mobility rate – the rate of students who move from the bottom two income quintiles to the top two income quintiles – was also greater at MSIs compared to non-MSIs. HSIs, PBIs and HBCUs in particular had a mobility rate double that of non-MSIs, with a rate of around 20% compared to 9%.
The report’s lead author, Lorelle Espinosa, ACE assistant vice president for policy research and strategy, said: “These findings fulfil a long-held belief by those close to these institutions that MSIs are poised to meet the widespread demand for higher education by lower income students and students of colour. They already display a strong track record of providing the upward income mobility that sustains the continued quest for the American dream.”

The report says the data verifies a working assumption of those familiar with MSIs that these institutions are standouts in the field for their contribution to income mobility.

“This distinction is important given the outsized performance of MSIs in generating upward income mobility even while they are operating with limited resources. One sees a strong case here for increased investment in institutions that are meeting students where they are, and making good on the value of higher education for individuals, families, and communities,” the authors conclude.

“Further, across the whole of higher education we could stand to learn and share the policies and practices employed by the top-performing MSIs, such that the field can learn from their success.”

Integral role

MSIs play an integral role in the education of students from low-income families and communities of colour where educational attainment is disproportionately low and income mobility can be stagnant, the report says. With a commitment to serve the nation and their surrounding communities, MSIs are “engines of upward mobility for millions of students, and play this role even while the majority of MSIs are at a financial resource disadvantage when compared to non-MSIs”, ACE says.

MSIs are ubiquitous to the postsecondary landscape, representing around one fifth of degree-granting Title IV-eligible institutions of higher education in 2014-15. In this same year approximately 700 MSIs enrolled 4.8 million students, or 28% of all undergraduates enrolled in US higher education.

“They enrol far larger percentages of minority and low-income students than the national average, providing opportunities for upward mobility, and award a disproportionate share of degrees to minority students in fields such as education and engineering, as well as preparing students for doctoral studies,” according to ACE.

They also provide students of colour with stronger academic experiences and more supportive environments while in college than do non-MSIs, evidence shows.

The financial circumstances of students enrolled at MSIs prevents them from raising tuition as a means to increase institutional revenue. They therefore rely more heavily on public funding than non-MSIs. But the number of MSIs is expected to grow in the years to come, ACE says.