I’ve spent my entire career studying undergraduate and graduate education, and I’ve visited over 40 historically Black colleges and universities as part of my work as an expert witness for the U.S. government in major civil rights cases regarding race and gender in higher education.
But not until Marybeth Gasman and I recently completed a three-year study of student success at MSIs (including HBCUs, TCUs, HSIs and ANNAPISIs) did I begin to develop a deep appreciation for how much many of us in higher education can learn from MSIs about cultivating equal educational opportunity for all students.
I’ve learned that ensuring the success of all students needs to be anchored in a shared understanding among all stakeholders in our colleges and universities that it is long past time to abandon the “one-size-fits-all” view of students.
The majority of students in higher education are bringing a confluence of individual challenges — from uncertainty about college, to family and financial challenges, to demanding work schedules, to English as a second language — that need to be addressed on a one-on-one basis.
To meet the varied needs of individual students, MSIs are creating cultures in which everyone — administrators, faculty, staff and students — embraces interdependence and collaboration as both obligations and opportunities. In doing so, they are blurring traditional roles and responsibilities. In other words, everyone is expected to take personal responsibility for the persistence and the learning of students.
At Paul Quinn College, the motto “We Over Me” isn’t just a slogan; it finds expression in the everyday lives of everyone at the college. One student emphasized this point, telling us that when he was thinking of leaving Paul Quinn, the president of the college drove from Dallas to Houston to have dinner with him and his mom — and convinced him to stay the course.
Faculty and staff at Salish Kootenai College serve as teachers, role models, mentors, tutors, advisers, guides and counselors in their one-on-one relationships with students.
At La Sierra University, recent graduates of the institution serve as both academic and personal coaches for first-year students. Closely tethered to a culture of interdependence, the MSIs in our study place major emphasis on collaborative learning, in which “giving back” to others is emphasized as much as — and often more than — individual achievement.
Students in the Full Circle Program at San Diego City College are enrolled in a cohort in which students teach and learn from one another in ethnic studies courses. These courses focus on racism and the struggles of immigrants, along with activism and community organizing, with the expectation that they will contribute to their communities long after college.
At Salish Kootenai College, faculty invite students to collaborate with them in conducting hands-on research on local issues such as mercury in the water. Through such collaboration, students embrace the idea that their work can make major contributions to their tribal communities. This belief that higher education should improve local communities is shared by all institutions in the study.
Minority-serving institutions are rejecting mainstream cultures in many colleges and universities that place assimilation into a culture of independent learning and competition at the core of a college education. Those of us in higher education — including myself — need to learn from MSIs, and step up to emphasize interdependence more than independence.
We need to place far more emphasis on collaboration in which everyone is engaged in mutually reinforcing teaching and learning. The sharing of diverse perspectives is at the very core of our everyday lives — not just on the margins.
As Cesar E. Chavez said, “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community. … Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”
Dr. Clif Conrad is the Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Conrad is co-author, with Professor Marybeth Gasman, of a forthcoming book on their study, titled Educating a Diverse Nation: Lessons from Minority-Serving Institutions.