A New Type of Minority-Serving Institution?

In 2008, I co-edited a book with Benjamin Baez and Caroline Sotello Turner titled Understanding Minority Serving Institutions. One chapter in the book, authored by Robert Terenishi and Julie Park, focused on Asian American, Pacific Islander Serving Institutions. As a result of including this chapter, I was asked to serve as an adviser at a recent summit focused on these institutions. The summit took place this week in Washington.

One of the most interesting aspects of the conference was the diversity of the participants. The organizer, Neil Horikoshi, made sure to be inclusive when inviting speakers, advisers, and participants. He drew from the expertise of those who work with Hispanic Serving Institutions and Black Colleges and Universities. From my perspective, this was an important strategy. As there is much misunderstanding about the Asian-American student population and its needs, it is crucial to have buy-in and support from other racial and ethnic communities.

Much of the higher-education community is unaware that a large proportion of Asian American Pacific Islander students are from low income backgrounds, are the first in their family to attend colleges, and have a difficult time securing financial support for college. In fact, the largest concentration of Asian Pacific Islander students (47.3 percent) is in the community-college sector. Among these students, 43.9 percent have taken developmental courses in reading and 37.6 percent in math.The assumption by many in higher educationis that all Asian Americans do well in college and that they are concentrated in elite institutions. This assumption leads people to wonder why Asian American Pacific Islanders need or want a special designation for institutions where they are largely concentrated.

Up until recently, Minority Serving Institutions (MSI’s) were defined by the Federal government as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s), Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI’s), and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCU’s). Under President Obama (and slightly before him), this definition has expanded to include Asian American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions, along with a few others. The Congressional Research Service estimates that there are roughly 160 institutions that could be considered for this new designation, including many state institutions and community colleges. Only 32 institutions have applied for the designation thus far; they qualify to apply for $50-million in grants designated for Asian American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions over the next 10 years. 

This new institutional designation is determined by percentage of student body (10%) and Pell Grant numbers.  President Obama also issued an executive order that established a White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. And, the director, Kiran Ahuja, has been given a charge similar to the directors of the White House initiatives for HBCU’s, HSI’s, and TCU’s.

Regardless of this strong Federal support, there are some members of the MSI community who question the need for institutional support for Asian American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions. Much of this questioning stems from the lack of knowledge noted above. To educate the MSI and larger higher-education communities, those advocating for these institutions need to use a data-driven approach.  

I suggest readers take a look at a new report by Robert Terinishi titled “Federal Higher Education Policy Priorities and the Asian American and Pacific Islander Community”  ( This report is a great start to educating yourself about these institutions and it sheds light on disparities in the Asian American Pacific Islander community. 


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