Educational institutions have always played a critical role in leading important research in our nation. They also have been a place for demonstration initiatives aimed not only at improving the intellectual capacity of our next generation of leaders, but also their health and well-being. Minority serving institutions (MSIs) are no different; they are emerging as critical partners for evaluators and researchers for efforts designed to promote the health and well-being of communities of color. MSIs are two- and four-year institutions of higher education that serve primarily minority populations. MSIs include Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) as well as newer designees, for example, Hispanic Serving Institutions and Tribal Colleges and Universities.1,2 There continues, however, limited ability among researchers and evaluators—both White and of color—to collaborate effectively with MSIs, in part because they lack understanding about these institutions’ history and diversity, which is more complex and extensive than it appears to the outsider.
At a time when the role and cost of higher education is receiving considerable attention from presidential candidates in the 2016 elections, African American/Black, Latino, and Native American college and university enrollment is disproportionately lower than their White counterparts. With the exception of Native Americans, these populations are projected to be the fastest-growing segment of the college population; yet racial and ethnic disparities in opportunities for higher education persist in our nation. For the portion of students of color who do go on to college/university, a substantial percentage choose to attend an MSI, and they do so for many reasons, some of which have to do with the desire to remain grounded in their community, being with others who share similar experiences, and having a strong sense of identity with the roots of their heritage.3 For evaluators and researchers to work effectively with MSIs, they must take into account the following unique contexts of MSIs.
Evaluators should be aware that the infrastructure of many MSIs could benefit greatly from partnerships with external resources that support capacity building, using strategies that respect the institutions’ history and concerns about perpetuating inequities. Students, faculty, and staff often take great pride in the unique history and current cultural contexts of these institutions. “Outsiders” should take the time to learn and ask lots of questions about these contexts. It is not uncommon for MSIs to have less funding and capacity in comparison to Traditionally White Institutions (TWIs). Despite this disparity, it is important for evaluators to recognize the existing institutional assets and power differentials between external funders/collaborators and MSIs, and the power differentials that also exist between MSIs and their surrounding communities, as well as dynamics that may result from historic inequities.
MSIs are not monoliths and must be treated accordingly. The history and current status of each institutions’ student body and surrounding community must be taken into account using a systems approach. MSIs are unique in their missions, cultures, and operations. While many of these institutions’ missions focus on providing their students with the social and educational skills needed to return to their home communities as leaders and social-change agents, they also vary with slightly different historical and contemporary contexts (e.g., regional setting, student body composition and preparedness, alumni engagement, endowments).
MSIs are a microcosm and a paradox of what is occurring in the general population; further understanding about the role of these environments on student health and well-being is needed. Students attending MSIs are more likely than those attending predominantly TWIs to be the first in their families to attend college, have lower levels of academic preparation for college, and are more apt to come from high-stress and high-poverty areas.4 However, it is important to note that this does not characterize all students who attend MSIs. What is often left out of the narrative on MSIs—and HBCUs in particular—is the diversity of students who attend these institutions. This diversity includes geography, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and for some, a legacy of preceding generations that have attended these institutions of higher education.
There remains a distrust of “outsiders,” making relationship building with key stakeholders and gatekeepers critical. There is a long history of distrust of research and researchers/evaluators in many communities of color that carry over to MSIs.5 It is important for outsiders to build trust and implement culturally appropriate strategies when working with MSIs. When appropriate and invited, outsiders should take part in campus activities and demonstrate a genuine interest that goes beyond data collection and evaluation.
Many MSIs are located in remote regions of the country, whereas others serve urban neighborhoods. Some MSIs are only a few decades old, whereas others, particularly the Historically Black Colleges and Universities, were founded prior to 1965, and many immediately following the end of the Civil War. Students attending MSIs may experience both environmental challenges (e.g., organizational rigidity, financial constraints, dated technology) and assets (supportive faculty and staff, culture-affirming and familial environments) related to health promotion, particularly given that many of these students are from the larger populations facing racial inequities in health. When developing programs and conducting research or program evaluations with these institutions, institutional assets6 related to their sociohistorical contexts such as student leadership skills, sense of pride, career goals, community service, and character development should be taken into account in the design of such initiatives. Most important, deficit models that assume negative characteristics about the students, faculty, and staff are inappropriate and wrong. Students, faculty, and staff located at MSIs are often an underutilized resource for social programs and intervention development, and warrant further attention and support.