Every Learner Everywhere

The MSI Isn’t a Monolith. Defining 6 Kinds of Minority-Serving Institutions

The term Minority-Serving institutions (MSI) is often used generically for all colleges and universities whose student bodies include a high percentage of a particular racial or ethnic group. This bundling of all MSIs together obscures significant variations on their mission, origins, and current context. It also inaccurately suggests that all the so-called “underrepresented” students enrolled in MSIs have similar needs and strengths or that all MSIs are similarly designed and oriented to serve them effectively.

Each type of MSI is defined by a mix of their historical origins and their eligibility for various forms of federal funding. As of 2016, there were over 700 MSIs under the definitions below, enrolling over five million undergraduate and graduate students. Another 300 may be counted soon as MSIs, as their enrollment demographics change.

Some MSIs are majority Black or Indigenous, and some are defined as an MSI when 10 percent of the student body is Asian American or Pacific Islander. Some MSIs, like tribal colleges and universities, have been designed with racial equity as part of their founding mission, but many others were founded as exclusively white colleges and have steadily enrolled more racially and ethnically minoritized students over time.

The “serving” part of the MSI label is also misleading. The definitions below rest on the number of racially and ethnically minoritized students who are enrolled, not on how effectively or how well the institution meets the needs of those students. As we’ve noted elsewhere, it’s not uncommon for colleges and universities to increase enrollment for minoritized students without necessarily increasing support for them.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU)

The Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965 defines an HBCU as “any historically Black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of Black Americans.”

Through institutions gaining or losing regional accreditation, the number of recognized HBCUs has changed over time, and in 2020, there were 101 recognized HBCUs in U.S. states and territories, including 52 public and 49 nonprofit institutions, and they conferred over 48,000 degrees. In other words, no new HBCUs were founded after 1964 under this definition. About 75 percent of students in HBCUs identify as Black.

Predominantly Black Institutions (PBI)

Sometimes people mistakenly characterize all predominantly Black institutions as HBCUs, but PBIs are a different set of colleges and universities. The reauthorization of HEA in 2008 extended funding opportunities to institutions other than HBCUs with undergraduate Black enrollment of at least 40 percent (among other criteria related to accreditation and the percentage of Pell-eligible students.) As of 2018, there were 104 PBIs in the U.S. Many PBIs are historically white institutions where the composition of the student body has changed over time.

Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCU)

TCUs are institutions chartered by an Indigenous tribe in the U.S. In 2021, there were 37 TCUs, with at least two more in development. They prioritize preserving Indigenous culture, language, lands, and sovereignty. They are often multi-campus institutions. Currently, they all offer associate’s degrees, 18 offer bachelor’s degrees, and five offer master’s degrees. TCUs serve over 160,000 students annually.

Native American-Serving Nontribal Institutions (NASNTI)

The reauthorization of HEA in 2008 extended funding opportunities to institutions other than TCUs with undergraduate enrollment of at least 10 percent American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN). Many are rural public state colleges and universities adjacent to tribal communities. In 2020, there were 37 NASNTIs enrolling over 78,000 undergraduates, 19 percent of whom were AI/AN students.

Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI)

The reauthorization of HEA in 2008 established HSIs as those with undergraduate enrollment of at least 25 percent Hispanic students. In 2019, there were 539 HSIs in 27 states, enrolling over 2.1 million Latinx undergraduates, and there were another 352 that Excelencia in Education characterizes as emerging HSIs with growing Latinx student bodies and nearing the HEA definition.

Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions (AANAPISI)

The reauthorization of HEA in 2008 established AANAPISIs as those with undergraduate enrollment of at least 10 percent Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander students. In 2016, there were 113 AANAPISIs in 15 states. The institutions enrolled 1.4 million students and awarded 235,700 degrees, with approximately 20 percent of those to Asian American or Pacific Islander students. AANAPISIs account for 22 percent of all associate’s and 21 percent of all bachelor’s degrees earned by this population.

Predominantly white institution (PWI)

PWI is an informal usage to describe most colleges and universities in the U.S. that were founded primarily or exclusively for white students and where the student body remains majority white. Under the definitions above, many MSIs are simultaneously PWIs. For example, many HSIs have a student body greater than 25 percent Latinx and are also majority white.

Historically white institution (HWI)

Some colleges and universities that are described colloquially as PWIs in fact no longer have majority white student bodies. Institutions that were founded as mostly or exclusively white but where white students are now less than 50 percent of the student body might be better described as historically white institutions.

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