Everyone Wants to Be a Hispanic-Serving Institution

The number of HSIs has exploded. But are all those colleges helping their Hispanic students?

By Sarah Brown and Katherine Mangan, The Chronicle of Higher Education

The local meatpacking plant is a prime recruiting ground for Marshalltown Community College. Many of its roughly 2,000 students came to the central Iowa community for jobs at the plant, where modest wages, automation, and grueling working conditions are driving them to seek better opportunities through education.

About one in five of its students is Hispanic, putting the college within striking distance of the 25-percent threshold for becoming a Hispanic-serving institution, or HSI — a federal designation that could allow Marshalltown to compete for much-needed grants. If the college had more federal money, it could spend more on recruiting — the JBS plant this year started covering tuition for workers and their dependents, but sign-up has been slow — and on summer boot camps, said José M. Amaya, a professor of English.

But if enrollment trends continue, the chances that Marshalltown will win those funds could drop considerably.

Historically, most HSIs were, like Marshalltown, small community colleges. Now, a growing number of four-year colleges — including large research universities — are joining their rapidly expanding ranks.

Within the next few years, one in four nonprofit colleges will meet the enrollment threshold to be a Hispanic-serving institution, which means 25 percent of full-time-equivalent undergraduates are Hispanic. There were 569 colleges that hit that mark in 2019, and 362 more that were close, according to the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, the lobbying group for HSIs. (For-profit colleges are excluded.)

Gina Ann Garcia, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Pittsburgh, put it this way: “If they’re not an HSI now, they’re gonna be.”

But becoming a Hispanic-serving institution doesn’t specifically require serving Hispanic students, just enrolling them. A growing body of research suggests that the government program designed to support Hispanic education is disbursing too little money among too many colleges, without an assurance that Hispanic students are benefiting. And the competition for scarce grants is likely to get even steeper.

Two-thousand miles away from Marshalltown, the University of California at Berkeley is also pursuing HSI status, propelled by a 42-member task force plotting a roadmap to take the highly selective university from 18 percent Hispanic students to 25 percent by 2027. The move is driven by Berkeley’s desire to reflect the diversity of California’s population, a spokesman said, though “access to additional funding is always a factor for a public university.”

Source: Excelencia in Education analysis using U.S. Department of Education, NCES, IPEDS, 1994-2019 Fall Enrollment and Institutional Characteristics Surveys Created with Datawrapper

Hispanic-serving institutions, first designated by the U.S. Department of Education in 1994, are part of the constellation of minority-serving institutions that also includes historically Black, tribal, and Asian and Pacific Islander colleges. Although they’re sometimes lumped together in policy discussions, and may end up competing for the same federal grants, the way they’re designated and funded varies significantly.

While tribal and historically Black colleges are essentially closed memberships — colleges can’t “become” HBCUs, for example — HSI is an open, rapidly-expanding designation based largely on enrollment demographics.

No money is immediately doled out, the way it is for historically Black and tribal colleges, which were set up with a mission to serve those populations. The HSI designation just gives colleges the right to compete with their peers for certain five-year grants from the U.S. Department of Education. The largest is the Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program. (The federal government determines HSI status based on Hispanic enrollment, although some people use the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino/a” interchangeably.)

To qualify for HSI grants, colleges have to show financial need in two ways: enrolling a high percentage of low-income students, and spending less per student than their peer institutions, on average. But colleges can ask the Education Department to waive one or both of those requirements.

The list of emerging HSIs — with Hispanic undergraduate enrollments of 15 percent to 24.9 percent — that could soon earn the designation is wide-ranging: the prestigious University of Florida; the small private La Salle University, in Pennsylvania; the two-year Technical College of the Lowcountry, in South Carolina; and Berkeley.

“It used to be that no one wanted to admit being an HSI, aside from getting the money, but now it’s the sexy, cool thing to be,” said Deborah A. Santiago, chief executive officer of Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit founded in 2004 to advance Hispanic student success.

There’s no question that more colleges are seeking HSI status today — and making the push known publicly.

Five years ago, Marquette University, a Catholic, Jesuit private institution in Wisconsin, announced a concerted effort to seek HSI status by 2026. At the time, the university’s undergraduate student body was less than 10 percent Hispanic. It was a “very ambitious goal,” said Jacqueline Black, director of Hispanic initiatives and diversity and inclusion educational programming at Marquette. This fall the university joined the list of emerging HSIs, with 15.4 percent Hispanic enrollment.

The Milwaukee university, like many institutions in the Midwest and Northeast, is anticipating a “demographic cliff” that will lead to enrollment declines and financial distress over the next two decades. Meanwhile, the Hispanic population in Wisconsin is growing faster than any other racial or ethnic group.

Black said increasing enrollment and funding weren’t the primary reasons to become an HSI. The goal was about fulfilling Marquette’s faith-based mission, she said, and improving outcomes for students from underrepresented groups. She has focused on ramping up Spanish-language outreach, diversifying the curriculum, and increasing the sense of belonging for Latino/a students.

But the university could use the money. In fact, its quest for HSI status might be delayed by Covid-related budget woes, which have hurt Marquette’s ability to offer generous financial aid to Hispanic students. The university has committed to cluster hires in its race and ethnic studies program, but those efforts were suspended during the pandemic.

Stephanie Aguilar-Smith, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of North Texas, published a study last month investigating why colleges were going after federal HSI grants. Across higher ed, there’s growing awareness of the government’s Hispanic-serving programs, Aguilar-Smith said in an interview, and greater institutional attention to racial injustice.

But money is a big motivation. One grant manager at a private university was frank: “We need the cash.” Officials at public colleges talked about financial strain as well. “As state funding goes down, there is a real need among institutions to find alternative revenue sources,” Aguilar-Smith said.

In interviews with two-dozen administrators, staff members, and professors, Aguilar-Smith found that colleges that frequently applied for federal HSI grants needed the money for specific projects like a library, or more generally to stabilize shaky budgets. Many people also figured that as long as they enroll enough Latino/a students, they might as well apply for the money.

Few of the people she interviewed directly connected their colleges’ pursuit of HSI grants to better serving their Hispanic population. Instead, Aguilar-Smith wrote in her study, “many HSIs seem to capitalize on their Latinx students.”

Some campus officials admitted to Aguilar-Smith that their colleges had applied for HSI grants to pay for “innovative” projects that were not necessarily “responsive to the needs of students of color or low-income students” — like new high-tech degree and certificate programs. One campus official said pursuing the grant for that purpose “felt like shiny-object syndrome.”

Hispanic-serving institutions that receive federal money based on that designation “don’t have to spend a penny on Latino students,” Santiago said. They just have to show that the funds are benefiting the institution, the theory being that it’ll help all students. The federal government lays out 16 “allowable activities” for using the funds, a broad swath that includes lab upgrades, faculty development, or endowment investments.

Of the 569 HSIs that the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities counted in 2019, “I’d say maybe 200 are showing intentionality,” Santiago added.

“The question is do they know who they’re serving?” she asked. “Do they know that Latinos are more loan averse?” Programs that pay off students’ debts unintentionally slight those who took on two jobs or spread their education over eight years, she said.

Students who attend part-time or swirl in and out between college and work have been hurt the most by the pandemic, Santiago said. The efforts colleges are taking to distribute grant money often aren’t reaching those groups. Instead, colleges should consider providing more on-campus jobs and daycare, along with making more generous scholarships available to part-time students, Santiago said.

Some colleges lack intentionality, at least initially, because they became HSIs without even trying. That’s what happened at Montclair State University, in New Jersey. “We went to sleep, we woke up, and we had 25 percent,” said Katia Paz Goldfarb, associate provost for Hispanic initiatives and international programs. Nearly a third of its undergraduate students now identify as Hispanic.

At the time, Goldfarb told senior leaders: “We are plainly a Hispanic-enrolling institution. We are not a Hispanic-serving institution.”

In 2017 those leaders asked Goldfarb — who’d been a professor and chair of the department of family science and human development — to lead a more intentional campus shift toward supporting Hispanic students. She told them she’d need to be in “a position where I am an octopus. I need to have my tentacles in every part of the institution.”

Four years later, Montclair State’s curriculum is starting to look different. The university now offers several core classes, like Economics 101, taught entirely in Spanish. There are more practical language courses, like Spanish for health professions and Spanish for business.

Goldfarb has also created a Hispanic Student College Institute, where local high-school students stay on campus for three days in the summer, meet faculty and staff, and take mock classes. The university walks students through the application process and connects them with peer mentors. Plus there’s a summer orientation for families, offered in Spanish and English, where the university counsels them on paying for college.

A continuing challenge for Montclair State — and many other HSIs — is the achievement gap for Hispanic students, Goldfarb said. Across the country, HSIs are a mixed bag in terms of student success, she said, though she stressed that they exist in vastly different contexts. The conversations about supporting Hispanic students will look different in California and Texas than in New Jersey or elsewhere in the Northeast, she said.

Advocates for Hispanic students, including Santiago, would like to see grantors look more closely at how the recipients of that money are using it. But they should do so in a context that doesn’t unfairly penalize HSIs.

Many of these colleges enroll large numbers of first-generation and low-income students who are underperforming by traditional metrics such as graduation and retention rates. And steering awards to colleges that favor such metrics could end up favoring highly selective, well-resourced colleges.

Hispanic-serving institutions, which represent just under 20 percent of colleges and universities and enroll 67 percent of Hispanic college students, have long been underfunded, their advocates argue.

The issue is on the minds of federal policy makers. This fall, the Biden administration launched an initiative devoted to Hispanic academic achievement, and the Senate created a Hispanic-serving institutions caucus. The reconciliation bill that passed the House of Representatives in November allocated at least $9 billion for all minority-serving institutions, a substantial amount of new funding. Still, the proposed amount of money for HSIs is not proportionate to the number of institutions, according to HACU.

On average, HSIs receive 68 cents per student in federal funding for every dollar spent per student at higher-education institutions nationwide, HACU said.

Number of HSIs for 2021 is projected.  Chart: Ron Coddington Source: Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. Created with Datawrapper

“What was low HSI funding 30 years ago has become more and more inadequate given the recent explosion in the population of students who must be supported,” said an article published last year by the Center for American Progress.

In 2019, the authors wrote, the total federal funding available for HSIs amounted to $87 per Latinx student enrolled, compared with $1,642 for every Black student enrolled at a historically Black college or university. They pointed that out not to pit one minority-serving group against another, but to show how far behind the federal government has fallen in meeting the needs of the nation’s booming Hispanic population.

Along with providing more money, the authors wrote, higher standards for how that money is used would ensure “that HSIs intentionally serve Latinx students rather than simply get credit for a student body to which they may not be particularly attentive.”

In 2019 Excelencia created a seal of approval for colleges that it feels are actually helping Hispanic students succeed. Among those recognized was the University of Texas at Austin, where 27 percent of undergraduates this fall are Hispanic.

The university isn’t shy about acknowledging that money is one driver of its desire to be an HSI. A news release last year touted the potential for “significant funding to expand and enhance educational opportunities for Latino students.” That status would make its researchers eligible for Hispanic-serving grants from several federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

But those involved in the transition to HSI status insist it isn’t all about the money; it’s also about serving the needs of a state where about 40 percent of residents are Hispanic.

“Becoming an HSI is just hitting a number,” said Richard R. Flores, deputy to the president for academic priorities at the flagship campus in Austin. “It was clear we were going to hit that number regardless, because of demographics.”

UT-Austin set up a 22-member transition team that met for about a year and submitted five years of data on enrollment, retention, financial, and other supports to get Excelencia’s stamp of approval.

“We wanted to be sure we didn’t just back into that designation but that we did it smartly, with a purpose,” said Flores, who is also a professor of anthropology and Mexican American and Latina/o Studies.

Antonio R. Flores, the president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, welcomes prestigious research institutions like UT-Austin becoming HSIs.

HACU has proposed creating a consortium of those research universities to become the anchors for a broader effort — including regional universities and community colleges — to increase the number of Latino/a students obtaining STEM degrees and going on to Ph.D. programs. HACU is using a National Science Foundation grant to set up the consortium, and the association plans to apply for millions more in funding to scale up the effort.

The HACU president said that while the overall pot of money for HSIs needs to increase significantly, he isn’t overly concerned with the narrative that Latino/a students are being shortchanged. Most HSIs have at least 50 percent Hispanic enrollment, he said, so chances are that grant money is going toward improving outcomes for Hispanic students.

Flores said he believes there are adequate safeguards to ensure that federal money is reaching the colleges that most need it. “Arguably, need is very important in the assessment of those proposals,” he said.

An Education Department official said the HSI program is still supporting a wide range of institutions, including community colleges. In recent years, two-year institutions have received grants, along with the University of California at Santa Barbara and the University of Arizona. But the department official acknowledged that the grants had become much more competitive, and that the program needed more funding.

In 2019, for instance, the department funded only 43 grants out of 223 applications for the Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program.

Colorado State University at Pueblo has secured four HSI grants in the past decade — which have gone toward crucial initiatives like streamlining transfer pathways and improving graduate education, said Derek Lopez, executive director of HSI Initiatives at the public regional institution.

But as the landscape of HSIs changes dramatically, Lopez wonders: Could the Education Department do more to ensure that federal money is going to colleges where it can have the most impact?

Regardless of what happens with federal grants, leaders of new HSIs must be prepared to do the hard work of transforming their campus cultures, said Heather A. Wilson, president of the University of Texas at El Paso.

UTEP, an open-access institution, enrolls about 24,000 students, 83 percent of whom identify as Hispanic or Latino/a. During the 31-year presidency of Diana S. Natalicio, UTEP became the only Hispanic-serving institution to attain the top Carnegie classification for research activity while also primarily serving Hispanic students.

As more research universities become HSIs, Wilson said, those institutions should focus on encouraging their Hispanic undergraduates to consider graduate education. At UTEP, she said, 42 percent of graduates advance to graduate programs within five years. Two-thirds of UTEP’s master’s degrees and Ph.D.s are earned by students of color.

Many new and emerging HSIs have very few Hispanic professors, Wilson said. At UTEP, 30 percent of tenured faculty members are Hispanic,while 7 percent of Ph.D. earners nationally are. That Hispanic representation is twice as high as any other R1 university, according to federal data.

If Hispanic students lack role models in the classroom, that’s a problem, Wilson said, and doctoral universities that are HSIs have a responsibility to do something about that.

“You have to be committed to long-term systemic service, not just the sugar high of some initiative,” Wilson said. Many Hispanic and Latino students “wonder whether they’re in the right place,” she said. They fail an exam, and they might think they’re not college material.

“You have to fight that predisposition,” Wilson said, “and constantly reinforce that they belong here.”

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Sarah Brown covers campus culture, including Title IX, race and diversity, and student mental health. Follow her on Twitter @Brown_e_Points, or email her at sarah.brown@chronicle.com.

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, student success, and job training, as well as free speech and other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at katherine.mangan@chronicle.com.