02/12/2014 05:27 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2014

Five Myths About Minority Serving Institutions

A Minority Serving Institution (MSI) is a college or university dedicated to educating students of color. The name itself is an umbrella term for a wide variety of institutions that emerged in response to a long history of inequity at predominantly white colleges and universities.

Misconceptions about MSIs abound. These myths exist primarily because of a lack of information: few people, even policy makers and administrators working in higher education, realize the extent to which MSIs have altered the educational landscape in this country. An integral part of American higher education, MSIs -- specifically, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), Hispanic Serving Institu¬tions (HSIs), and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institu¬tions (AANAPISIs) -- have carved out an important niche in the nation.

At the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, part of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, we are working to help MSIs promote their work more effectively and to increase the body of knowledge about these institutions through research.

Myth #1: MSIs are inferior to other colleges and universities.

The majority of MSIs have a deeply rooted mission of educating low-income students of color. But this does not mean that MSIs have lower standards or provide a lower quality education. Just as there is variation among colleges and universities in general, there is variation among MSIs. They are not monolithic in any way. In their variety -- two-year and four-year, selective and open enrollment, public and private -- MSIs mirror the variation in quality that exists among all institutions of higher education.

Myth #2: MSIs are racially homogenous and do not prepare students for the real world.

MSIs are more racially and ethnically diverse than most colleges and universities. Most boast campuses with diversity that is representative of the nation overall, with some MSIs having student bodies made up of 25 percent African American, 25 percent Latino, 25 percent Asian American, and 25 percent White students. There is also great diversity within racial and ethnic groups, including religious, socio-economic, and sexual diversity. And MSIs have some of the most diverse faculties in the nation, providing role models for their students.

Myth #3: MSIs don't educate enough students to matter.

In 2013, MSIs educated 3.5 million students, or 20 percent of all college students in the United States. The majority of these students were from low-income backgrounds. If we don't educate these students, we will not meet our nation's 2020 goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world, nor will we be a strong country overall.

Myth #4: MSIs are no longer needed in our post-racial and integrated society.

First, America is not post-racial. In fact, since the election of President Obama, there has been an outbreak of racist incidents in the country. Second, MSIs are actually wonderfully representative of the America that is right around the corner-the America that will be a plurality by 2050, with no single racial or ethnic group in the majority. Given this context, MSIs are better equipped than most institutions to provide expertise on educating diverse student populations - expertise that is greatly needed by majority institutions, whose demographics are changing rapidly.

Myth #5: Faculty at MSIs don't do research.

It is true that around half of all MSIs are community colleges, where teaching is emphasized over research. But 40 research institutions also count themselves as MSIs. These institutions consist of larger, public Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions, and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions that make research a primary mission. However, research is being conducted at the majority of MSIs, including small tribal and Black colleges. Of note, much of the research at MSIs concerns their surrounding communities and the needs of those communities. And most MSIs encourage their faculty members to contribute to local, tribal, regional, and national conversations.