Chanting the Data: An Evidence-Based Approach to Graduate Student Success


David A. Ortiz

One might argue that there exists an embarrassment of riches in the research regarding student persistence in higher education, especially for traditionally aged undergraduates. One might also argue that there is an emerging body of knowledge on student success for Latino/a undergraduate students. However, when it comes to our knowledge and understanding about the experiences of Latino/a master’s level graduate students, I’d suggest that we know very little about this student population. I dare you to tell me otherwise. In fact, I double-dog dare you.

Recent data analysis by The Pew Hispanic Center has shown a greater number of Latino/a students are enrolling in higher education institutions across the country. While access to and research on undergraduate education is increasing, there remains an untapped body of knowledge on Latinos/as in graduate school. Moreover, as Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) and Emerging HSIs grow in total numbers, their potential impact on graduate student success must be understood. In other words, what high-impact programs and services promote the educational pathway to graduation for Hispanics at HSIs?

According to a report by Excelencia in Education, the total number of HSIs with graduate programs increased by 91 institutions from 1994 to 2013, representing an increase of 190%. Moreover, nearly 90% of HSI graduate programs can be found in six locations: Puerto Rico, California, Texas, Florida, New York, and New Mexico.

Recognizing the growth of Latinos/as attending graduate school at HSIs, The Department of Education’s Hispanic Serving Institution Division launched a new funding competition as part of the Title V grant funds in 2009, and subsequently in 2010 through 2014, to identify and fund innovative ideas that promote Latino/a graduate student success at HSIs. The Promoting Postbaccalaureate Opportunities for Hispanic Americans (PPOHA) Program provided grants to: (1) expand postbaccalaureate educational opportunities for, and improve the academic attainment of, Hispanic students; and (2) expand the postbaccalaureate academic offerings as well as enhance the program quality in the institutions of higher education that are educating the majority of Hispanic college students and helping large numbers of Hispanic and low-income students complete postsecondary degrees. Between 2009 and 2014, approximately $19M per fiscal year—$114M in total—was appropriated for PPOHA.

On the surface, these numbers are certainly impressive. However, a cautionary tale must be noted: the funding pattern for PPOHA remains inconsistent. Whereas other Title V competitions have a regular five-year rotation with dedicated funds, PPOHA has neither. Interim Director of the Department of Education’s HSI Division, Ralph Hines, has already stated in public that a 2015 PPOHA competition is unlikely. So what does all of this mean? For me, it proves that we must be fastidious in collecting data to demonstrate the success of PPOHA grants and other similar best practices for graduate student success. However, if you try to mine the literature for studies on Latinos/as in graduate school (specifically master’s students), you can expect your plate to come up mostly empty. This needs to change.

For emerging scholars seeking to etch out a research agenda that is untapped and open to possibilities, or for the seasoned scholar interested in augmenting the knowledge base of Latino/a student success, a focus on Hispanics in graduate school is ripe for the picking. With the launch of Excelencia in Education’s HSI Center for Policy and Practice in October 2014 as well as the existence of other national organizations such as the Association of HSI Educators (AHSIE), the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities’ (HACU) recent Deans’ Forum on Graduate Education, and the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education (AAHHE), there are multiple resources scholars can draw upon to carry out this research.

I once heard Dr. Frances K. Stage, one of my former professors at Indiana University, state that we needed to “chant the names of the ancestors” before making our own personal claims and recommendations about problems and solutions in higher education. This anthropological reference suggests that we must rely on solid research from the past to guide our understanding of best practices in the present. In a time when research on Latino/a students in graduate school is limited, be advised that the names we chant in the future…may be yours!

Dr. David A. Ortiz is the Founding Director of the University of the Incarnate Word’s Graduate Support Center and Assistant Professor of Research and Graduate Studies. The Graduate Support Center is the recipient of the Excelencia in Education’s 2014 Example of Excelencia in the Graduate Education category.

Leaving Penn: A Reflection


Thai-Huy Nguyen

On May 16th, 2015, I ended my graduate education by walking alongside my friends and colleagues in the field of education as our degrees were conferred upon us. The day started off with immense excitement and nervousness, in part because it meant that I was leaving my home—the University of Pennsylvania and the Center for MSIs—of five years.

What did these five years consist of? What was it like to be a graduate student at Penn’s Graduate School of Education?

The learning curve was quite steep for me. Coming straight out of the workforce, I was not immediately attuned to the level and amount of reading and writing required of me. My first year took a great deal of persistence and sacrifice in light of the many social distractions that accompany graduate education in beautiful Philadelphia. What became readily helpful was the ongoing support of my advisor and fellow colleagues in the program and across the university. Time spent with them gave way to fruitful conversations that blossomed into enduring friendships and opportunities for collaboration—both of which were necessary to help me begin my path into the academy.

Penn is quite unique in its approach to graduate education in that it actively encourages its schools and departments to work closely with students to develop interdisciplinary plans of study—believing that cross-discipline learning will bring about greater knowledge to tackle today’s most pressing social and economic issues. I embraced this path throughout my five years by exposing myself to research and scholars inside and outside—nursing, history and sociology—of my field. Studying and working in these disciplines and fields strengthened my research and modes of inquiry and gave me a better understanding of why my work in higher education matters.

The most exhilarating aspect of this path was the unnerving nature of its structure: there was none. I had to dig deep, commit to different ways of thinking and theorizing, and avail myself of research topics in which I had little experience. For instance, in the past three years, I worked closely with Margo Brooks Carthon, a professor of nursing science at Penn. Through her grant with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, I became her project manager on a national survey of diversity pipeline programs in nursing baccalaureate programs. This opportunity gave way to a wonderful cross-disciplinary collaboration in which we used our collective interests and expertise to address the shortage of nursing students of color and shed light on the practices that encourage their success in nursing education programs. Despite feeling lost at the start, the choice to pursue an individualized path became quite liberating with every new project and course, and I began to make sense of the vast knowledge I had amassed over the years.

In my last year at Penn, I became a research assistant for the Center for Minority Serving Institutions (CMSI), conducting research to improve our nation’s understanding of MSIs. I was fortunate to contribute to CMSI’s achievements through empirical research, policy reports and grant writing, which in turn gave me the preparation I needed to transition to my new role as a faculty member. Although I worked with all sorts of faculty and students across the university, it was important—in light of all the changes in my last year—that I had a home at the CMSI. Of my time and experiences at Penn, I will miss the CMSI the most.

Aside from my formal training, I am leaving with a community of friends that I trust and can depend on—an indication that my graduate education at Penn has been a journey that I will fondly look back upon and smile with deep gratitude and inspiration.

Thai-Huy Nguyen is an assistant professor of student development administration at Seattle University. Prior to his appointment, he served as a research assistant for the Center for MSIs at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Ensuring Non-Traditional Black Student Success at HBCUs: A Researcher’s Reflection

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Ramon B. Goings

At the beginning stages of my dissertation research study, which explores the academic and social experiences of high-achieving Black male HBCU students, I thought I would find individuals who had a traditional trajectory to college. More specifically, I was prepared to hear my participants discuss their transition from high school directly to their collegiate institution. However, I have quickly learned that the Black men in my study have not had the traditional route to college. In fact, many of the men arrived at their respective HBCU from community college or from the workforce after establishing their families and careers.

For instance, one of my participants, Rahim (pseudonym), received his undergraduate degree at the age of 61 while continuing his successful career owning a construction company. Rahim acknowledged that earning his college degree was not necessary to ensure his future success in the workforce; however, he understood that earning his degree would provide him the opportunity to pass along his wisdom and knowledge to students as a high school and/or college instructor. Interestingly, Rahim’s story and others in my study are not uncommon—the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) data on postsecondary enrollment trends shows that from 2001-2011, the enrollment of non-traditional students (ages 25 and older) increased by 35%. While a growing body of research has emerged analyzing the experiences of Black students on HBCU campuses, there is a need for more studies that explore the experiences of non-traditional Black undergraduate students attending HBCUs.

In Robert Palmer’s October 13, 2014 blog post for MSIs Unplugged titled,  “Charting a New Agenda: Being More Intentional about Examining the Experiences of Black Students at HBCUs,” he challenges researchers to focus on different facets of the Black student experience at HBCU institutions. Furthermore, he provides valuable topics for researchers to explore, including examining the challenges students encounter at HBCUs. His insights are valuable as they push researchers to further develop our knowledge of the experiences of Black students have at HBCUs.

Along with Palmer’s suggestions for new research topics, I believe there are many unexplored questions regarding non-traditional HBCU students in particular that should also be explored, such as:

  1. How do non-traditional HBCU students balance their home, work and school responsibilities while working towards their college degree?
  2. What challenges do non-traditional HBCU students face and overcome during their college tenure?
  3. How do non-traditional HBCU students establish and navigate relationships with faculty and peers on campus?

As the cost of college tuition continues to rise, we will continue to see an increase in non-traditional students nationwide. Some students may elect to attend community college to save money prior to enrolling in a four-year institution while other students may choose to enter the workforce to earn money to pay for college. Furthermore, as stories continue to surface regarding decreases in enrollment at HBCUs, it is important for HBCU administrators and policymakers to capitalize on this opportunity to target non-traditional students in an intentional manner to potentially increase their overall student enrollment. Moreover, knowing more about the non-traditional student population will be critical to support student recruitment efforts as well as the development of programs on campus to support non-traditional students.

Ramon B. Goings is a doctoral candidate at Morgan State University.