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More colleges need to step up their game amid the rise of Latino students

This is adapted from our Lumina Foundation podcast, “Today’s Student / Tomorrow’s Talent.” Click the video below to see the show, or if you’re on the go, catch us on iTunes or wherever audio podcasts are found. To see more episodes, please go to the show’s website.

As the number of Latinos in the United States grows — it’s nearly 59 million people, or 18 percent of the population — colleges and universities are seeing increases in both their rates of enrollment and degree completion.

Since the mid-1990s, college enrollment among Hispanics has more than doubled, and now at least 500 colleges and universities across the country have been designated as Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), meaning that Hispanics constitute a minimum of 25 percent of total enrollment.

For the sixth episode of the podcast, I wanted to find out more about HSIs — what are they, how they’re working, and what they’re doing to live up to their mission.

 

Beatriz Ceja-Williams, division director at the U.S. Department of Education, leads the federal office focused on HSIs. She said the HSI designation is based not only on Hispanic student enrollment but on a financial threshold that shows colleges and universities are also serving needy students.

But beyond the literal definition, Ceja-Williams said, it’s important for these institutions to provide services and support for Hispanic students. She stressed the need for innovative practices and strategies to help students succeed. More information may be found here.

“It’s not enough just to say that you’ve met the definition of an HSI if students don’t have a sense of belonging if the leadership doesn’t provide the support necessary to get to and through college completion,” she said.

That was Gina Garcia’s message as well. She is an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, where she studies racial and ethnic equity and diversity within higher education. She thinks of HSI as an identity, and she said becoming an HSI is a process that requires civic engagement, outcomes, and experiences.

She also believes the way these institutions are evaluated needs to be reconsidered. Hispanics are more likely to be first-generation college students and from lower-income families, so there are better ways than using the standard six-year graduation rate for bachelor’s programs to measure success. Similarly, comparing how much money HSIs spend on research is a poor idea, she argues, because many of schools are community colleges (with standard three-year graduation rates for reporting purposes) and devote themselves to teaching undergraduates rather than research.

The question should be, she says: How do you transform curriculum, pedagogy, promotion and tenure, and decision-making, so it aligns with the ways Latinos experience education?

Deborah Santiago, co-founder, and CEO of Excelencia in Education, an organization devoted to accelerating Latino student success in higher education, said that to serve Hispanic students properly, you have to take a look at how an institution is enrolling, retaining, financially supporting, providing a model faculty and staff, and graduating students.

She said the number of HSIs is increasing by 25 to 30 colleges and universities a year, but the designation is only one step. Existing HSIs must set standards for serving students that encourage other institutions to do the same.

In the next five years, Santiago said, she expects to see a critical mass of institutions committed to the cause that are showing what it takes to serve Latino students.

“We have to make sure that we meet our national goals of degree completion,” she said, “and, more importantly, that we educate our citizenry and provide opportunities for every single person in this country.”

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