Hispanic Serving Institutions: Opportunities to Lead and Challenges to Succeed

Deborah Santiago

Deborah Santiago

It appears there is finally a sustained public interest in Latinos. And while the general profile of our population is too often limited to issues of immigration, there is growing awareness of the Latino population in higher education. Did you know that a relatively few number of colleges and universities in the U.S. enroll the majority of today’s Latino students? Almost 60 percent of all Hispanic undergraduates were enrolled in less than 15 percent of all college and universities (370) in 16 states identified as Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs).

Too few people also know how HSIs are defined. The institutions are defined in federal legislation as degree-granting public or private not-for-profit institutions of higher education with total Hispanic undergraduate full-time equivalent enrollment of 25 percent or more. That’s a mouthful and more nuanced a definition than most people care to retain. But the key characteristic to remember is enrollment. Unlike Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), HSIs are defined by their concentrated enrollment of Hispanic students, not by an explicit mission to serve these students.

The HSI definition creates opportunities for these institutions to lead as trendsetters in access to higher education in ways they have rarely been considered for two clear reasons:

  1. HSIs’ student profile actually represents the majority of students in the U.S. While public policy is still focused on the traditional student enrolled in traditional institutions and enrolling in traditional pathways, HSIs have been creating and refining their efforts of community outreach and student access with the post-traditional students of today. Post-traditional students are more likely to be Latino or other students of color, low-income, first-generation college goers with need for academic support. Post-traditional students represent the population more colleges and universities are, or will soon need to, recruit.
  2. HSIs have adapted their institutional practices to increase access with constrained resources. HSIs who have embraced the post-traditional student as their target population are more often public and open access colleges located in large or growing Latino communities with limited resources. However, demography is not destiny, and financial resources alone do not guarantee access. Successful HSIs have not taken for granted that Latinos live in their service area by assuming the institution’s location guarantees Latino students will enroll; HSIs are initiating strategies to enroll Latino students. Trendsetting HSIs have recognized success in access strategies that include building community relationships and trust; explicit outreach to Latino parents to inform them of opportunities and recruit their support for their students; student awareness and engagement strategies with feeder high schools and community colleges; and flexibility in scheduling classes during nights and weekends. Traditional institutions can learn from the trendsetting HSIs.

However, HSIs also have challenges that go beyond enrollment and are critical to ensuring success—both for themselves and their students—such as the following two challenges:

  1. HSIs must demonstrate what institutions can do to serve, not just enroll Latino students. Success in enrolling Hispanic students is necessary, but not sufficient, to increase Latino college completion. To “serve” Hispanic and other post-traditional students in higher education, an institution must actively promote these students’ success. Leading HSIs have embraced the responsibility to serve students by implementing more holistic strategies with cultural competency to increase student retention through academic and student support services and increase persistence with student employment, financial aid, and program flexibility to ultimately increase student success. Codifying and sharing the stories of their success in serving post-traditional students is thus a challenge, as well as an opportunity for HSIs.
  2. HSIs must identify appropriate metrics to track their progress in serving students. Accountability for the investment of public funds at colleges and universities is a dominating discussion in state legislatures as well as Washington DC today. However, current metrics used to define an institution’s success (and increasingly being considered for performance-based funding) are often too simplistic to track the often experimental and evolving efforts by institutions committed to serving high concentrations of post-traditional students. HSIs and other Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) are challenged to take the lead in identifying multiple metrics that more appropriately track their value-added efforts in student success. Beyond graduation rates, these metrics can include consideration of semester-to-semester retention rates, part-time and transfer student completion, and completion rates for cohorts with post-traditional traits. Further, HSIs can propose the use of metrics for a more appropriate comparison with other institutions, such as the percentage representation of needy students and level of education and general expenditures for a more appropriate comparison with other institutions.

The two opportunities and two challenges noted are not intended to be exhaustive of the opportunities and challenges HSIs and other MSIs are facing. Rather, the hope is to spark additional critical thinking about the role these institutions currently play in the U.S. postsecondary landscape and their potential contributions and constraints to ensure the success of current and future students.

Deborah A. Santiago is the COO and Vice President of Policy at Excelencia in Education and an Advisory Board member at Penn’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

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