Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Getting Beyond Ratings and Rankings to Find What Works for Minority-Serving Institutions

Paul Quinn College President Michael Sorrell discusses recent changes and programs at the Dallas-based HBCU at EWA's 2015 seminar on higher education. Source: Valencia College/ Don Burlinson

Paul Quinn College President Michael Sorrell knows his campus won’t be rated highly by the U.S. Department of Education’s new College Scorecard. In fact, Paul Quinn has “the worst numbers you can possibly imagine at the federal level,” Sorrell told reporters at EWA’s recent higher education conference Sept. 18-19 in Orlando.

But there’s more to a school than a score, Sorrell and his fellow panelists Marybeth Gasman and Joyce Romano discussed during a panel on what works for minority-serving institutions.

When Sorrell assumed the presidency in 2007, Paul Quinn, a historically black college, was one year away from going out of business, he said. Since then, the school has seen a series of successes, such as implementing a New Urban College Model to reduce student debt and becoming the first urban work college after turning their football field into a farm.

The Dallas-based HBCU is “very comfortable” trading nationally recognized numbers for students’ benefit, Sorrell said. For instance, the college continues to provide remedial education despite controversy because it’s what Paul Quinn students need. 

“When I hear people talk about dumping the developmental programs, I just always know those people have never been to the high schools where our students come from,” he said. “We can recruit a valedictorian who got a 17 on the ACT, which means you’re not ready for college. Some never told them how to prepare for a test.” 

In every similar case, all colleges need to listen to their students. “I don’t think it matters whether you’re an HBCU or a Hispanic-serving institution. I think what matters is that you’re serving you’re students. If you listen to your students, they’ll tell you what kind of school they need,” Sorrell said.

At Valencia College, a Hispanic-serving institution, that meant adopting the old motto, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” and focusing on two key factors for student success — connection and direction, according to Joyce Romano, Valencia’s vice president for student affairs.

Romano told reporters that students at the Orlando community college are frequently asked when they’re graduating so that the end goal is always at the front of their minds. And with Valencia’s DirectConnect partnership with the University of Central Florida, students are guaranteed acceptance and smooth transition to the four-year institution after obtaining an associate’s degree. Twenty-five percent of UCF graduates are Valencia graduates, and half of those graduates are students of color, Romano said.

The school also promotes a sense of personal connection for students through various student groups and learning communities — a strategy that has worked particularly well for Hispanic and black students and even students who were failing academically.

But even Valencia rates below average in many of the categories on the new scorecard. 

Marybeth Gasman, director of the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania, advised reporters to look past the ratings for stories.

While she praised some aspects of the new federal scorecard and thinks the Obama administration is on the right track, Gasman took issue with the fact that race and ethnicity were not even remotely factored in.

“The problem is it’s not telling you that maybe the graduation rates are lower than the University of Florida, for example, but … tells you nothing about special programs that might be offered at a variety of institutions, the love that might get offered,” she said.

As session moderator Clarece Polke, a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, pointed out, there’s a reason minority students choose schools like Paul Quinn and Valencia over majority-serving institutions. Gasman said that’s especially true at schools that embrace the “HBCU,” “Hispanic-serving,” or other minority-serving distinctions, which include Asian-American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions (AANAPISIs) and Tribal Colleges. 

“At MSIs, there seems to be this commitment to students, commitment to teaching,” Gasman said. “In my research, we found this over and over and over. I think there are a lot of things like that that make an enormous difference.”

Sorrell agreed. “Things are happening below the U.S. News & World Report,” he said, referencing the publication famous for its annual college rankings. “Don’t rely solely on those places as the indicator of who’s doing great work.”