What we should talk about when we talk about HSIs


Anne-Marie Nuñez

Over the past two decades, as the Latino population has grown, several higher education institutions have become Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs). In fact, according to the most recent analysis by Excelencia in Education, the number of HSIs between 1994 and 2013-14 more than doubled from 189 to 409 institutions. HSIs, therefore, are the largest and fast-growing kind of Minority-Serving Institutions (MSI). Unlike some other MSIs (HBCUs and TCUs in particular), HSIs were not designated with a mission to serve Hispanic students specifically. Rather, they were designated on the basis of enrollment – non-profit, degree-granting institutions with 25% or more full-time equivalent (FTE) enrollment of undergraduate Hispanic students.

As a faculty member in an HSI who also conducts research on these institutions, I often hear three assumptions about HSIs: (1) HSIs are monolithic, (2) HSIs either ignore their HSI status or do a lot to serve their Hispanic students (that is, these institutions are “Hispanic-enrolling” or “Hispanic-serving”), and (3) HSIs are underperforming institutions when it comes to traditional metrics like graduation rates. Sylvia Hurtado, Emily Calderon Galdeano, and I have co-edited a newly released volume entitled Hispanic-Serving Institutions: Advancing Research and Transformative Practice. The research in the volume and other important emerging research offer a broader context within which to explore these assumptions.

First, HSIs are not monolithic and are in fact characterized by significant institutional diversity. They include two- and four-year private and public institutions, all of which are not-for-profit organizations, as well as many (about three in ten) in Puerto Rico. Gloria Crisp, Diane Elizondo, and I have also developed a typology of HSIs to better understand the range of HSIs. Using cluster analysis, we have identified six types of HSIs, each with distinctive characteristics from other types of HSIs: urban enclave community colleges, rural dispersed community colleges, big systems four-year institutions, small communities four-year institutions, Puerto Rican institutions, and health sciences institutions. Furthermore, as Awilda Rodriguez and Emily Calderon Galdeano have found, it is difficult to find several non-HSIs with comparable characteristics to HSIs, making many comparisons of outcomes at HSIs and non-HSIs inappropriate. This emerging research helps us characterize HSIs as a set of distinctive institutions in empirically grounded scholarship.

Second, because HSIs were not designated on the basis of institutional mission, often do not publicize their status in easily accessible forms like web page portals, and often have lower graduation rates for Latinos than other institutions, a common narrative about these institutions is that they either are doing nothing to support Hispanic students (merely “Hispanic-enrolling”) or that they do a lot to support these students (“Hispanic-serving”). My experiences as a faculty member in and researcher about these institutions suggest that constructing such a dichotomy oversimplifies the reality of how HSIs contribute to educating Latino students. New qualitative research, and a recent blog post on this site by Gina Garcia, confirms this assertion by suggesting that stakeholders may enact an organizational identity that is oriented toward supporting Hispanic students, even if that identity is not articulated in symbolic terms like mission statements. That is, faculty and staff in HSIs can behave in ways that serve Hispanic students, even if they do not represent their organizations as serving Hispanic students to entities outside of the university.

Third, although it is commonly assumed that HSIs are underperforming institutions because of their relatively low graduation rates, emerging research using rigorous quantitative approaches suggests that, in fact, it is pre-college factors, as well as HSIs’ limited institutional resources, that primarily explain HSIs’ low graduation rates. Prior research on this blog by Stella Flores and Toby Park indicates that, for HSIs in Texas, K-12 academic preparation before college entry accounts for the majority of differences in college graduation rates between HSIs and non-HSIs. Other national research by Awilda Rodriguez and Emily Calderon Galdeano in my recently published co-edited book also suggests that taking into account HSIs’ comparatively limited institutional resources (HSIs spend far less per student than non-HSIs), as well as their student characteristics, helps further explain the differences in graduation rates between HSIs and non-HSIs. Research by Marcela Cuellar in this book also suggests that Latino students in HSIs experience greater gains in academic self-concept and community orientation than their counterparts at non-HSIs. Thus, when other metrics are considered, HSIs are contributing positively to educating Latinos in more ways than once thought.

HSIs are dynamic and changing organizations. To really understand what we talk about when we talk about HSIs, we should employ the emerging empirical evidence to build an informed sense about these institutions. To do otherwise could have devastating consequences for Latino students and families and HSIs.

Anne-Marie Nuñez is an associate professor in higher education at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) and an affiliate of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

Learning from successful practices: The premedical program at Xavier University in New Orleans


By Beatrice Bridglall

By the year 2060, the U.S. is likely to have a more diverse population, according to recent U.S. Census Bureau projections. Specifically, minorities — defined as all but the single-race, non-Hispanic, white population, currently 37% of the U.S. population — are projected to become 57% of the population by 2060. Looking at the projections a bit more carefully, we see that the total minority population is expected to increase to 241.3 million, which is more than double the current number of 116.2 million.

Notwithstanding this expected population shift, current increases in medical school enrollment for Black or African American, Hispanic/Latino/a and Native American students do not accurately reflect their respective population growth. That is, although African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos/as and Native Americans currently comprise 31.5 percent of the U.S. population, they comprise, in the aggregate, only 12.3 percent of the current physician workforce.

As we engage on many fronts to meet increased demand for physicians, let us consider the track record of Xavier University (XU) in New Orleans. What can we learn from XU, considered the only historically Black, Catholic institution of higher education in the United States, and which manages to prepare and place underrepresented students into medical schools across the country (including Harvard, Northwestern, Baylor, Emory, Meharry and Tulane)? What’s more, 93% of students graduate and become practicing physicians and dentists.

This question reveals the deeply integral nature and active implementation of several principles of learning in XU’s premedical program. That is, the program:

  • Structures knowledge around the major concepts and organizing principles of several disciplines, including biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics, making it a knowledge-centered environment
  • Structures and shapes student learning around particular tasks and activities, making it a learner-centered environment
  • Academically and socially supports students’ capacity to learn with understanding vis-à-vis learning communities at many levels, making it a community-centered environment

Taken together, this approach supports the faculty’s focus on exit criteria rather than entrance requirements. It also informs the premedical faculty and staff members’ perspective that “course content, teaching methodology, and the rate of presentation should be determined by the relevant department as a whole, not by individual lecturers or textbooks.”* Toward this end, faculty members in the departments of biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics, jointly adapted and standardized several foundational courses, including general biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, general physics and pre-calculus/calculus I. Faculty emphasized that, in planning meetings with members from each department, they “decide the material covered, the rate at which it is presented, and even the algorithms students will use in solving problems. This material is integrated in the workbooks students receive, which contain learning goals and sample problems, for example.”* As a result, “all faculty are aware of the content in basic courses and where to begin upper-level courses.” This ensures that “the responsibility for providing support is shared by all faculty, including new and adjunct faculty.”*

This integrated curriculum not only removes redundancies, but also reinforces difficult concepts and promotes conceptual mastery vis-à-vis interdisciplinary course work. As an indication of faculty commitment and dedication, this effort, which began in the early 1970s, continues today. Interviews with Dr. J.W. Carmichael, director of XU’s premed program, and premedical faculty indicate that this considerable curriculum modification stemmed from students’ struggles to conceptually link their mathematical knowledge with scientific concepts in general chemistry. Faculty also found that students tended to view getting additional tutoring in this area as embarrassing, and consequently did not actively avail themselves of it and other supports. Faculty moved thus to deliberately integrate academic supports as part of the course. This strategy ensured that “students are neither pre-judged because of their background nor punished for poor performance.”*

Thus, the standardization of biology and chemistry courses “provides structure. It helps tremendously, because we have students with a wide variety of backgrounds, and it helps to get everyone up to speed in one year. We believe we need to be very explicit about what students have to do. We are correcting for years and years of poor education. Everyone goes to tutoring. There is no stigma attached to tutoring. Standardized courses really make a difference” (personal communication, J.W. Carmichael, July 2005 and January 2010).

* Quotes from interviews with premedical faculty and staff conducted July 2005 to January 2010

Parts of this article are excerpted with permission from “Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: Studies of three undergraduate programs in the US.” Bridglall, B.L. (2013) Lexington Books: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

Dr. Beatrice Bridglall is Faculty Affiliate at the Institute for Social Development at NYU Shanghai and Fulbright Specialist, Council for International Exchange of Scholars (CIES).