10/03/2012 11:56 am ET Updated Dec 03, 2012

Who Will Educate Low-Income Students?

Those who work in higher education or study higher education know that President Obama, as well as several national foundations, have rigorous goals for our nation in terms of increasing degree attainment. The question is: where will these new students be educated? According to Anthony Carnevale, a speaker at the Salzburg Seminars' "Closing Educational and Social Mobility Gaps Worldwide" Session and professor at Georgetown University, these students will not be educated at the majority of four-year, predominantly white institutions. In his words, most of these institutions are striving to be more elite and are chasing money and test scores. Carnevale thinks that most of the movement and contributions in terms of degree attainment will take place at community colleges and for-profit institutions. I would argue that Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) are aiding, and have significant potential to aid, more low-income students and to contribute greatly to degree attainment in the U.S. There are over 560 MSIs today, including Hispanic Serving Institutions, Tribal Colleges, Black Colleges, and Asian Pacific Islander Serving Institutions. I would also argue that many of these institutions educate with an ethic of care that is vital in the lives of the students they serve. I'm not sure if or how for profit institutions, as Carnevale suggested, can educate with an ethic of care as mixing profit and education just does not work in my mind.

All too often Minority Serving Institutions are criticized for having lower graduation rates. However, these lower rates are indicative of the role that MSIs play in American society. Unlike many colleges and universities that ignore low-income and underprepared students (as well as students of color), MSIs consider these students part of their historic and current mission.

According to Carnevale, "efficiency crowds out equity" in American higher education. Many PWIs appear intensely efficient -- with well-prepared students and high graduation rates -- yet in order to maintain this efficiency they cannot truly meet the needs of low-income, underprepared students. In order to educate these students, an institution often has to be comfortable with inefficiency and a bit of messiness; they have to be open to criticism. I am not making excuses for low graduation rates, but one cannot expect institutions that take risks in terms of the education of students to have the same graduation rates as institutions that take no risks.

If our goal is to increase the number of students earning college degrees, we should be applauding MSIs for their willingness to do the heavy lifting. Moreover, the public and private sectors ought to be investing in these institutions at a higher level. We need to stop, as higher education scholar Gary Rhoades, spending the least amount of money on the students that need it the most. Much of the gains in terms of higher education and equity in American society are to be made in MSIs.