A Shift in Priorities to Support the Future STEM Workforce: Recommendations for an Impactful Change
Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) provide a gateway to postsecondary education for millions of students of color—a population that is an increasingly critical portion of the U.S. workforce. Two-year and four-year MSIs educate nearly 30 percent of all undergraduates in the United States, yet they are often overlooked and underutilized in efforts by stakeholders to foster new programs and systems that support stronger science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, research and development, technology, and innovation. Our committee was charged with addressing this urgent national issue. In light of the demographics of the nation, as well as the growing complexity of STEM workforce needs in the United States and across the globe, we concluded that the nation’s more than 700 MSIs are poised to bolster a well-trained, diverse, and domestic STEM-capable workforce.
As context, we provided an overview of the various types of MSIs, describing their commonalities and unique characteristics, as well as the diverse student bodies that they serve. Compared to non-MSIs, their students are more likely to be not only students of color, but also lower income and the first in their families to attend college. Many students are balancing school with jobs and family responsibilities and have different needs than historically “traditional” students. In spite of the limited resources of these students and the institutions themselves, MSIs have been successful in providing multifaceted return on investment for students, communities, and the STEM workforce. With targeted funding, attention, and support, they can contribute much more.
We have provided key findings throughout this report and showcased effective programs, practices, and strategies that bolster the success of students of color at MSIs. In reviewing the literature, in our site visits, in committee
presentations, and in our own experience, we realized that many of these initiatives, such as mentoring or undergraduate research opportunities, can and should benefit all students. MSIs and their stakeholders can maximize the benefits when they root these initiatives in what we have defined as intentionality: a purposeful, culturally mindful method of engagement that targets and tailors the design, implementation, and evaluation of an effort to effectively meet the needs of its intended population of students. Intentionality is a critical component of the seven strategies that we identified as promoting the academic success and career preparation of students at MSIs—mission-driven leadership, institutional responsiveness, a supportive campus environment, academic supports, sustained mentorship, authentic research opportunities, and meaningful public-private partnerships.
Although there is some evidence of what works at MSIs, there is a lack of rigorous research on this critical topic. The need for more research and program evaluations to inform decision making is reflected in our recommendations. So, too, is our recognition that efforts to scale up promising initiatives or to promote systemic change will not be effectively realized without intentional and targeted funding and policy support from stakeholders of higher education and the STEM workforce, including federal and state policy makers, government agencies, business and industry, nongovernmental organizations, and professional and scientific associations. In the recommendations outlined below, the committee challenges stakeholders to initiate a substantial, and potentially uncomfortable, shift in their thinking. We challenge the nation’s public and private investors to capitalize on the unique strengths and attributes of MSIs, and to invest in programs and strategies that equip them with the necessary resources, faculty talent, and vital infrastructure to flourish.
The committee also recognizes that this challenge to the nation carries implications for MSIs. As we urge the nation to turn to these institutions as high-priority resources for STEM talent, MSIs must continue to pursue high levels of excellence, quality, and rigor. In the recommendations below, the committee asks MSIs to take bold and innovative measures to ensure that they fully capitalize on untapped resources, and to take a critical, holistic look at their current resources and academic offerings to prioritize those that contribute most directly to students’ workforce readiness in high-demand fields, as well as to their sociocultural development and preparation for active citizenship in their communities, on a national and global stage.
In that spirit, we have organized our 10 recommendations under the broad areas of Leadership, Public and Private Partnerships, Financial Investments, Institutional Research Capacity, and Performance Measures. We ask all partners involved in this shared enterprise to approach these recommendations with a heightened sense of urgency and an ever-present focus on intentionality. With a committed joint effort among stakeholders, MSIs and their students can
bolster the nation’s achievements in STEM and catapult its standing in the current global economy.
I. Cultivate a Culture of Success through Strong Leadership
Recommendation 1: MSIs have a unique opportunity—and responsibility—to design and implement policies and practices that are intentional in focus when it comes to educating and graduating students of color and those from low-income and first-generation backgrounds. Many MSIs, especially those with rich histories of serving students of color, are already demonstrating such intentionality. Others, including “emerging” MSIs, are new to this journey and are in need of culture change to serve a diverse student body.
To best support the success of their students, particularly those in STEM fields, the leadership of MSIs, including governing boards, presidents, deans, and provosts, should develop appropriate policies, infrastructure, and practices that together create a culture of intentionality upon which evidence-based, outcomes-driven programs and strategies to support student success are created and sustained.
Recommended strategies include establishing or improving
- Dynamic, multilevel, mission-driven policies that affect and guide leadership priorities—including policies that reflect a deep understanding of the relationships between investments in STEM teaching and research and the development of the next generation of STEM workers;
- Institutional responsiveness to student needs—particularly the skills and experiences needed by students entering a rapidly evolving labor market in science, engineering, computer science, and the health professions;
- Campus climates that create and support a sense of belonging for students;
- Tailored academic initiatives and social support services that promote positive learning outcomes and facilitate MSI student retention and success;
- Effective mentorship and sponsorship of students so they have access and support to pursue graduate education and careers in industry, government, academia, and the nonprofit sector;
- Undergraduate research experiences with state-of-the art equipment and facilities under the tutelage of faculty and employers who are familiar with the types of research skills needed for graduates to thrive in the STEM workplace; and
- Mutually beneficial public- and private-sector partnerships that give MSI students access to research, training, and work experiences that are rigorous and relevant.
To support the continued success, growth potential, and adaptability of these strategies, MSIs should determine, through rigorous evaluations, the impact of promising programmatic or institutional initiatives on outcomes of success for students, faculty, and institutions, as well as their local and regional communities. The outcomes of these evaluations may highlight marketable return on investments for current and future funders of MSIs, and reveal high-priority areas for improvement. To assist with this effort, MSIs may need to seek out partnerships with academic, government, or private industry stakeholders.
Recommendation 2: To cultivate a pipeline of forward-looking, mission-driven MSI leaders, MSIs and their stakeholders, including professional associations and university-based leadership programs, should prioritize and invest in succession planning and professional development training programs for current and future leaders of these institutions, including presidents, provosts, deans, directors, governing board members, and faculty.
Training should be evidence based, sustained, and embedded in the context and culture of the institution. The knowledge and skills obtained through these trainings should address the unique challenges and opportunities for MSIs and their student populations, and provide the skills for leadership to navigate challenging fiscal climates and other internal and external pressures.
Areas of professional development should include
- Principles and fiduciary responsibilities of institutional governance and shared leadership;
- Strategic planning and implementation to set institutional priorities that reflect the need to invest in programs that best meet the needs of students entering a rapidly evolving labor market;
- Effective principles and practices of mentorship and succession planning;
- Equity-minded leadership and cultural competency;
- Fundraising, particularly the need to position MSIs to effectively compete for STEM-focused federal grants and contracts;
- Use of data and evidence to inform and communicate institutional policy and practice, and to invest in institutional research capacity, so leaders understand their institutions’ true strengths and competitive advantage, especially in STEM fields;
- Strategies and practices for establishing strong, sustainable partnerships with non-MSIs and with local, regional, and national employers;
- Effective marketing and communication of MSIs’ value and contributions to local communities, the STEM workforce, and the national economy.
II. Establish New and Expand Current Public- and Private-Sector Partnerships
Recommendation 3: Leadership from within MSIs, non-MSIs, government agencies, tribal nations, state agencies, private and corporate foundations, and professional, higher education, and scientific associations should prioritize efforts to establish new or expand current mutually beneficial and sustainable partnerships. These partnerships should support education, research, and workforce training for the nation’s current and future STEM workforce.
MSIs should consider the following concrete, actionable steps:
- Prioritize partnership opportunities that leverage the institution’s core assets, such as a diverse student body, committed faculty, student support infrastructure, and culture of intentionality.
- Identify potential partners’ needs and effectively communicate how the institution is strategically positioned to help address these needs.
- Articulate clearly defined goals for partnerships that are aligned with institutional mission and supported by administration, faculty, and staff. A primary emphasis should be on giving MSI students access to high-quality research, mentoring, internships, and apprenticeships, on par with the nation’s top-tier universities such that MSI students secure experiences in classrooms and laboratories that give them competitive pathways to graduate education and careers in STEM.
- Secure a mix of partnerships with different STEM-focused efforts at the federal, state, and regional levels, including with other institutions of higher education, local and regional employers, and tribal nations. There is potential for these partnerships to provide funding and incentives for new programs that anchor economic development efforts (e.g., business incubators, training centers, and entrepreneurial development programs) in MSI departments.
- Establish a separate program management system focused on the creation of mutually beneficial partnerships, rooted in continuous improvement methods, with designated, full-time staff to evaluate and progressively enhance those partnerships.
We also call on the business sector—which often speaks about a commitment to equity and diversity and to a highly skilled STEM workforce—to create new
and expand current local, regional, and national partnerships with MSIs. Efforts should include the following:
- Create formal partnerships with MSIs. They may take the form of financial support, research capacity building, visiting faculty appointments, professional development opportunities, or other innovative initiatives that serve the interests of both the business and the MSI.
- Create work-based learning opportunities for MSI students and faculty that provide access to state-of-the-art research and laboratory experiences that reflect real-world research activities. Such internships or apprenticeships should provide hands-on, experiential learning opportunities—either on-site or on-campus but with direct involvement of business and industry leaders to provide instruction and mentorship.
- Create regional “MSI-Business-STEM Consortiums,” composed of leaders from key industrial sectors such as technology, health, finance, aerospace, and others to mobilize long-term, sustainable support for greater investments in MSIs and their students. This is an opportunity for the business community, which often gives voice to diversity and inclusion, to make a tangible and real commitment to diversity, inclusion, and economic prosperity by investing in MSIs.
Non-MSIs and nongovernmental organizations, including nonprofit organizations, private foundations, and professional, higher education, and scientific associations, should collaborate with MSIs to accomplish the following:
- Fund and organize regional workshops that connect MSI leadership and research faculty with managers and grants officers from government research agencies to better understand current and future priorities in research and development, obtain best practices in proposal writing for each agency, and gain opportunities for engagement;
- Fund and organize regional consortia to provide MSIs, particularly those that are the most resource challenged, with a national platform to promote their value to the STEM workforce and national economy, and to highlight their current efforts to develop the next generation of STEM talent;
- Develop new and expand current initiatives to connect MSI STEM students with innovative research, training, apprenticeship, and workforce opportunities; and
- Create cross-sector collaborations that provide intentional and seamless STEM pathways for students who begin their education at a two-year MSI.
III. Create New and Expand Current Financial Investments
The recommendations below are directed to funding agencies and higher education stakeholders (Recommendations 4-7) and Congress (Recommendations 8 and 9).
Recommendation 4: Public and private funding agencies should continue to develop and expand grant competition programs that serve the nation’s MSIs (e.g., the National Science Foundation’s Hispanic Serving Institutions Program, National Institutes of Health’s Research Infrastructure in Minority Institutions). Such agencies include but are not limited to the Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Defense, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, tribal nations, state agencies, private and corporate foundations, and local, regional, and national businesses.
- Specific efforts should support the evidence-based strategies and promising programs outlined in this report and include the following:
- Target new education, research, and capacity-building grants to MSIs that have a demonstrated commitment to enhanced research and teaching infrastructure. This includes funds to support new and modern laboratories, advanced classroom technologies, core facilities for interdisciplinary research, and work-based learning programs that encompass state-of-the-art science, engineering, and medical equipment and facilities.
- Create or modify grant programs to implement incentives for non-MSIs to partner in mutually beneficial ways with MSIs on areas related to STEM education, research, and teaching, including the facilitation of student transfer (e.g., from two-year to four-year institutions), mentorship programs for junior faculty, and student access to graduate education.
- Require that all newly issued grant awards have sufficient and designated funding to support rigorous evaluation of programmatic outcomes for the students, institution, and workforce. This evidence should be used to determine the scalability and sustainability of model programs.
Recommendation 5: While we recommend that stakeholders increase competitive funding for MSIs (see Recommendation 4), we also recognize that many MSIs are substantially underresourced, without the appropriate institutional research staff and grant, contract, and sponsored research offices to effectively compete for high-stakes dollars, including large, multiyear, multi-million-dollar federal grants and contracts to support STEM education and build long-term research capacity. We recommend that public and private funding agen
cies (e.g., Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Defense, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, state agencies, private and corporate foundations, and local, regional, and national businesses) reconsider the practicality of current competitive funding models for underresourced MSIs.
In the face of MSIs’ limited capacity, funding organizations should
- Offer “seed” or “planning” grants to MSIs that enable them to secure the resources and depth of knowledge needed to develop and/or expand their grant offices;
- Offer training programs and real-time guidance and collaboration to MSI grants officers and, even more importantly, to MSI faculty researchers so that they can master the complex grants and contracts processes and understand the requirements for an effective proposal or bid; and
- Reallocate existing funds to increase organizations’ overall investments or issue new, innovative, noncompetitive, demonstration grants to MSIs to evaluate the outcomes of promising programs on campus, particularly those focused on advancing student success in STEM fields.
To build a culture of evidence and increase the institutional research infrastructure at MSIs, targeted areas of support should
- Strengthen institutional data systems that can more effectively monitor student performance, identify performance gaps and their causes, and promote data-informed solutions;
- Establish models of shared leadership whereby faculty and staff can more easily access and utilize data for decision making; and
- Recruit and hire designated, full-time staff trained in data analytics and institutional research practices.
Recommendation 6: Just as we recommend that MSI stakeholders increase investments in MSIs, we are cognizant of the current funding climate for competitive grants. Therefore, we call upon MSI presidents and senior leadership to independently or in collaboration with local, regional, and national partners (e.g. other MSIs, non-MSIs, business, and industry) take aggressive, proactive steps to better position themselves to compete for public and private STEM research contracts and grants.
Concerted efforts by MSIs interested in enhancing their competitiveness in STEM education should include the following actions:
- Establish partnership opportunities with other MSIs, non-MSIs, government agencies, or private industries that can provide access to or assist in the development of the necessary infrastructure to support research activities, such as core facilities or faculty oversight committees.
- Create strong, well-resourced offices of sponsored research that cultivate and maintain relationships with federal and private funders, and champion the unique added value of MSIs and their return on investment for students, communities, and the economy. To assist with this effort, MSIs may need to seek out formal or informal partnerships with academic, government, or private industry stakeholders.
- Advance efforts to seek out relevant funding agency officials and grants officers (e.g., National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation) at conferences and professional meetings, and establish a stronger presence in Washington, DC, in order to cultivate the relationships that are often key for increasing competitiveness for grants and contracts.
- Support and incentivize professional development and training for MSI faculty and staff to acquire knowledge about the grants and acquisition processes within relevant funding agencies, and about current research on teaching and learning that will inform grant applications. This could take the form of faculty service and participation in intergovernmental personnel exchanges, such as appointments as program officers in federal research agencies, and support for faculty to attend conferences on effective teaching and learning.
- Provide educational enrichment opportunities for MSI governing boards and senior leadership to remain updated on the most effective budgetary allocation and monitoring processes to support high-level research endeavors and appropriate STEM teaching infrastructure.
- We urge university leaders to reevaluate the overall returns on investment for low-participation programs and majors on campuses, and where necessary and appropriate, reallocate certain resources to STEM disciplines and courses that support sociocultural development and preparation. These hard choices may help to advance institutional missions and more effectively train students to thrive in the local, regional, or national workforce.
Recommendation 7: To support informed decision making and strategic financial investments in MSIs, public and private funding agencies should issue new and expand current grant opportunities for evidence-based research related to MSIs. Such agencies include but are not limited to the Department of Education, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, tribal nations, state agencies, private and corporate foundations, and local, regional, and national businesses.
In particular, funding agencies should solicit and support proposals that examine
- Institutional diversity within and across MSIs;
- Outcomes of success for MSIs and their students, broadly defined;
- MSIs’ contributions to local, regional, and national workforces (i.e., comprehensive returns on investment);
- Unique challenges for MSIs and their students and strategies to address these challenges;
- Effective strategies to advance institutional missions; and
- Sociobehavioral and sociocultural research on the factors and conditions that moderate and mediate the implementation and efficacy of programmatic interventions at MSIs.
Recommendation 8: To more effectively measure MSIs’ returns on investments, and to inform current and future public-private partnership initiatives, we urge Congress to prioritize actions to enhance clarity, transparency, and accountability for all federal investments in STEM education and research at MSIs. We recommend that short- and long-term efforts are taken.
For improvements in the short term, we recommend that Congress require all relevant federal agencies to
- Identify an MSI liaison, which would become the responsible organization or representative to coordinate activities, track investments, and report qualitative and quantitative progress toward increasing participation in STEM research and development programs;
- Produce an annual procurement forecast of opportunities including but not limited to grants, contracts, or subcontract opportunities, cooperative agreements, and other transactional agreements that will enable increased participation of MSIs in basic, applied, and advanced STEM research and development programs;
- Report on the level of participation of MSIs as prime recipients/contractors or subrecipients/subcontractors, including the type of procurement mechanisms (i.e., contracts, grants, cooperative agreements, and other transactional agreements) and the current investment totals that support STEM research and development programming;
- Categorize MSI investments and distinguish between type of investments (i.e., internships versus training grants versus basic/applied/advanced research actions);
- Track proposal submissions by MSIs (as lead investigators, principal investigators (PIs), or co-PIs) in federal contracts, grants, cooperative agreements, other transactional agreements, and Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR)/Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs; and
- Participate in SBIR/STTR programs to report MSI level of participation, including metrics on level of pursuits.
For sustained, more systemic improvements, we recommend that Congress require federal agencies to produce an annual MSI STEM Research and Procurement Report that provides an account of specific investments and measurable outcomes on the institutions, faculty, students, and priorities of the national agencies. The report would distinguish between procurement vehicles (i.e., grants, contracts, cooperative agreements, GSA schedules, SBIR/STTR programs) and areas of investments (i.e., health, physical science, biological, engineering, IT/cybersecurity, homeland, aerospace/space, defense, transportation, agriculture, social sciences, natural resources and the environment, and energy). This report could serve as a critical resource for policy makers, government agencies, and MSIs to assess and benchmark the impact of national investments in underserved high-potential communities. The findings from this report may also encourage other stakeholders (e.g., major federal prime contractors, industry, and nonprofit organizations) to partner with MSIs in broader STEM research and development initiatives.
Recommendation 9: As it considers regular adjustments to federal higher education policies and programs—including, but not limited to, the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act—Congress should use the legislative process to incent greater investments in MSIs and the strategies outlined in this report to support their students. We suggest that leaders of congressional committees with oversight on higher education consider the following legislative actions:
- Significantly increase annual appropriations to support need-based aid and capacity-building funds for MSIs (e.g., Pell grant and Title III and V funding). This funding should include institutional endowment-building activities.
- Invest in new and expanded funding mechanisms that strengthen the STEM infrastructure on MSI campuses in the ways described above.
- Create and fund programs that encourage innovative teaching, learning, and laboratory experiences in STEM on MSI campuses, but that remain mindful to the guiding principle of intentionality. We further encourage the requirement that any such programs include a strong and rigorous evaluation component, and the resources required to support high-quality evaluation, to measure the impact of new initiatives on student learning and on career outcomes for STEM graduates.
IV. Improve the Assessment of MSI Performance and Accountability
Recommendation 10: In response to the growing diversity in student pathways to degree attainment, federal and state educational agencies (e.g., U.S. Department of Education and state higher education agencies and coordinating boards), state legislators, and other entities that utilize indicators of student success, including for accountability purposes, should reassess and refine current methods of measuring student outcomes to take into consideration institutional missions, faculty investment, student populations, student needs, and institutional resource constraints.
When using metrics for accountability purposes or designing performance funding models, we urge policy makers to
- Avoid an overreliance on graduation rates and other standardized metrics that fail to account for the varying educational pathways that many MSI students take. Alternatives include disaggregating success rates by enrollment intensity or expanding the time period by which students are tracked.
- Take into account diverse institutional missions, institutional resource constraints, student populations, and student needs. Whenever possible, analyses should disaggregate data on student demographics.
- Examine intermediary outcomes and institutional commitment to serving a diverse student body, such as developmental course completion, the availability of resources and opportunities that target underrepresented students, and the proportion of students of color enrolled relative to an institution’s surrounding community.
- Reward institutions with a demonstrated ability to improve outcomes over time, instead of establishing performance thresholds that declare institutional “winners” and “losers.”
We also urge MSI leaders and their stakeholders, including professional associations and university-based leadership program leaders, advocates, accreditation boards, and higher education researchers, to develop and support alternative metrics of success to best capture the achievements of MSIs and students (e.g., novel initiatives or partnerships to advance institutional mission, two-year institutions’ transfer rates, student advancement in competencies, student income mobility, and postgraduate success).