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.
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.
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.