Upward mobility is a promise that many students and their families count on when sending their students to college. As part of the process of social mobility in America is the expectation that earning a college degree will be the foundation on which the next generation will be better off economically as compared to the prior generation. This promise for upward mobility is deeply rooted in the American psyche, and especially for first-generation college students and families of color who represent historically underserved populations in higher education.
This was the case for me when I was being raised by my grandparents in Alabama during the civil rights movement. As an African American student, the type of higher education institution I chose to attend was just as critical. I enrolled in a small Historically Black College and University (HBCU), a minority-serving institution (MSI), because I saw it as a place where I could be who I was, and a place where I would directly receive the cultural understanding and support I needed to overcome my struggles and thrive from faculty and professionals in administrative positions who looked like me.
And recent research bears this out. The 2017 Equality of Opportunity Project and the 2018 American Council on Education Brief looked at how upward mobility rates differ among MSI graduates and those who attended non-MSIs. The findings showed that across all MSI types, four-year MSIs boost a significantly larger number of students from the lowest income quintile to the top income quintile than four-year non-MSIs. This is why federal funding for MSIs is so critical for individual families and for the larger economy in our state. In fact, New Jersey is home to 13 private and public MSIs with programs that have the highest potential return on investment, especially for increasing the quantity and quality of much-needed STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) graduates to address the national shortage of health professionals, scientists and engineers.
How are MSIs so successful?
MSIs operate differently. At Bloomfield College, New Jersey’s only four-year private predominantly Black- and Hispanic-serving institution, and an MSI, our day-to-day operations are responsive to the specific needs of the student populations we serve. Small class sizes, for example, make it easier for students to ask questions and receive responses during class time, rather than needing to wait for an appointment during faculty office hours to keep up with understanding the material. Such active participation is well documented to increase student engagement, learning and retention. Smaller classes also allow for greater hands-on learning activities that can catapult a student’s understanding of how to apply what they’ve learned to a real job situation.
What’s more, faculty at small private colleges and MSIs like Bloomfield College are centered on quality teaching, not research or publishing, to determine their advancement. Faculty are expected to mentor students professionally and personally, focusing on the whole student which allows for students and faculty to get to know one another, often both inside and outside the classroom. The bonds that are formed enrich the guidance given by academic advisers who not only advise on the necessary coursework to complete a major, but also learn each student’s goals such as what they want to do with their degree after graduation. And, with less enrolled students to compete with, students attending small private colleges and MSIs have an increased opportunity to step into leadership positions where they can practice and learn the essential skills that will get them noticed and promoted in the workplace. These are a number of the important reasons why my husband and I chose to send five of our six children to MSIs.
What my grandparents, friends and I have known from personal experience about the benefits of attending an MSI is now statistically proven. The recent data revealed student upward mobility rates of four-year MSIs, even with their required low expenditures, are more than double that of four-year non-MSIs with low expenditures. What an eye-opening distinction, extraordinarily important for all first-generation and students of color considering their college options. And, especially now, as they face the unprecedented, systemically disproportionate challenges that have surfaced in the wake of this pandemic. Today, more than ever, the data present an indisputable case for government leaders to endorse a greater investment in MSIs and small private colleges who are validating their value in the higher education landscape with the promise to advance our citizenry and our state’s economy.