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.

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