The Latino/a Educational Pipeline: Understanding the Condition of Latino/as in Higher Education

Polet Milian

Polet Milian

Natalie Gonzalez

Natalie Gonzalez

Latino/as are the fastest growing ethnic minority group in the United States, increasing from 13% to 17% of the population during the past 10 years. It is important to understand that, despite the milestones made in Latino/as success, they continue to be underserved in various areas of higher education.

The Condition of Latino/as in Education: 2015 Factbook’ released by Excelencia in Education, provides snapshots of the educational pipeline for Latino/as from primary through graduate education. The report seeks to spread awareness of Latino/as in education; explores the educational disadvantages that are faced within the Latino/a community; and emphasizes the significance in increasing Latino/a student success. Following are some of the Factbook’s main themes.

Different stakeholders have played roles in increasing access and completion for Latino/a students, particularly at Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs). In 2012-2013, HSIs enrolled 59% of Latino/a undergraduates, and with 277 emerging HSIs, this participation is expected to increase. Note that 52% of HSIs in 2012 were community colleges and private, two-year, not-for-profit institutions.

Enrolling at a two-year-institution is not irregular, as 45% of all undergraduate students were enrolled in public two-year colleges in 2012 (American Association of Community Colleges, 2014). But a higher amount, over two-thirds of all Latino/as, were enrolled at two-year HSIs alone. In 2012, only 7% of all graduate students were Hispanic, and 5% of doctoral degrees were conferred and awarded to Latino/as students.

This participation correlates with data showing that, over the course of the past decade, more Latinos earned an associate’s degree as their highest degree compared to a bachelor’s degree or higher. However, with minimal research on the history of Latino/as in higher education, it is difficult to identify ways to increase participation in education.

Latino/as continue to fall behind in critical areas of education, such as high school graduation rates, degree attainment and positions in academia. This proves that Latino/as as a whole have a long way to go before reaching an equitable state in education. In 2011, Latino/as continued to be underrepresented among instruction and research faculty, as they accounted for only 4% of positions. Even among such a small group, 52% of the pool was employed part-time, and 68% of the Latino/a full professors were male, which highlight the inequities of gender and ethnicity in tenure positions.

A way to address and work to resolve these inequities can stem from building stronger pipelines between bachelor’s-granting HSIs and doctoral-granting institutions. Originating the pipeline from HSIs is beneficial, because although not all are the same, they may have policies and resources in place that promote engagement of Latino/a students.

As the demographics of the nation change and the Latino/a community continues to grow, there is a stronger need for Latino/a students to continue through the higher education pipeline. By 2020, 65% of jobs will require post-secondary education, with 35% of those requiring at least a bachelor’s degree (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2013). If social justice is not enough motivation, policymakers and institutions need to realize that if Latino/as are unqualified to fill the jobs the market will demand, it will bring negative financial repercussions. As HSIs continue to enroll the most Latino/a undergraduate students, there is greater urgency to develop and strengthen pipelines at these institutions that can lead to greater higher education attainment and completion.

Excelencia in Education also presents the top 25 institutions that awarded the most associate, bachelors, masters, professional and doctorate degrees to Latinos in 2012-2013. HSIs have significant presence in those disciplines, with a high of 21/25 in the associate degree category, and a low of 9/25 in the doctorate category.

Although the report highlights the presence of HSIs in the top 25 Latino degree-granting institutions for Latino/as, it does not present the role of for-profit institutions. The University of Phoenix, a for-profit-institution, is in the top three positions in associate, bachelor and masters’ degree-granting categories. For-profit institutions leave students with higher debt and increased likelihood of defaulting on loans, limiting access for students who desire to pursue additional education. As Latino/as and other traditionally marginalized communities become more vulnerable to for-profit institutions, their educational pipeline will continue to be limited.

Natalie Gonzalez and Polet Milian are master’s students in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Hispanic Serving Institutions: More than Just a Federal Designation?

Gina Garcia 1

Gina Garcia

Perhaps you have read the ongoing debate regarding the federal designation that institutions receive when they enroll 25% or more Latina/o students. Some call the designation simply a political construct, while others argue it is an actual organizational identity.

An emerging body of empirical research on Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) shows that HSIs are “doing more with less,” meaning they are graduating Latina/o students despite having smaller budgets and fewer resources than many non-HSIs. Research also shows that students make strong cultural connections with faculty and staff at HSIs and feel validated in these environments.

Beyond graduation rates and positive student experiences, there are historical and structural indicators that the HSI identity is more than just a federal designation. 

Historical Indicators

Rather than assuming that institutions haphazardly become HSIs as a result of changing demographics, we should examine the history of access and inclusion at these institutions.

In scrutinizing the historical legacy of one four-year HSI in the Southwest, I found that the Chicana/o Movement of the 1960s had a significant impact on the institution. In El Plan de Santa Barbara, Chicana/o student leaders in the organization that came to be known as El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) challenged existing institutional structures by demanding increased access for Chicana/o students, the establishment of Chicana/o studies programs, and increased support services for Chicana/o students.

While these changes did not happen overnight, the trends at this institution show there was an institutional effort to fulfill these demands, as they now have a fully staffed office of outreach and recruitment, one of the largest and strongest Chicana/o studies departments in the country, and an Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) that is responsible for advising all students on campus.

More than 40 years after Chicana/o students stormed the administration office to demand that their needs be met, their historical legacy remains strong.

Structural Indicators

While I would argue that HSIs should certainly do more to change their structures in order to better serve Latina/o students, there are numerous examples of best practices that are happening on HSI campuses.

Rather than questioning whether one or two small programs are enough to adequately serve Latina/o students, we should learn from these examples and find ways to scale up the programs that are working.

In my research, I found that the campus has done just that with the EOP. Although these types of programs are often found on the periphery of an institution or on the chopping block when institutional budgets are cut, this institution has learned how to use the EOP model to provide culturally relevant advising to all students on campus, not just the small number of students who qualify for the program. It has done this by developing satellite offices within all of the academic colleges, each with their own director who reports to the central EOP office.

By using a culturally relevant model for advising, campus administrators have decided that practices that are good for low-income, first-generation students are good for all students, regardless of their background.


While these findings cannot be generalized to all HSIs, I encourage researchers, administrators and advocates for HSIs to find value and strength in these institutions, as there are numerous examples of the ways in which institutions that were not founded to serve Latinas/os are in fact providing culturally relevant experiences for all students. Examining the historical legacy is important, as there is much to be learned from the ways Latina/o students have been both included and excluded from participation.

Furthermore, we must scrutinize current organizational structures, including programs and policies, curriculum and pedagogy, and leadership and organizational decision-making, in order to learn about how to best serve Latina/o students. Beyond the federal designation that was granted to HSIs in 1992, there are historical and structural indicators that these institutions are doing their best to enroll, support and graduate Latina/o students.

Dr. Gina Garcia is an assistant professor in the Department of Administrative and Policy Studies at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education.