What we should talk about when we talk about HSIs

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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.

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