Higher Education

As more Latinos go to college, schools vie to become Hispanic-Serving Institutions

But Hispanic advocates say the federal label doesn’t always mean colleges prioritize Latinos

New T-shirts in the campus bookstore symbolize the University of Central Florida's identity as one of the state's Hispanic-Serving Institutions.

New T-shirts in the campus bookstore symbolize the University of Central Florida’s identity as a Hispanic-Serving Institution.

ORLANDO, Fla. — The University of Central Florida opened during the civil rights movement, and from the beginning school leaders made racial diversity a priority. In 1969, the school established a black student union. In 1970, it developed an affirmative action strategy. Now UCF is on a new mission to excel in enrolling, educating and graduating Latino students, and nothing better sums up its new diversity goal than the phrase on the T-shirts displayed in the front of its bookstore: “¡Vamos Knights!”

The school is increasing its resources for Latinos, hosting roundtables on undocumented immigrant students and offering workshops on topics such as “Latinidad and LGBTQ+.” After Hurricane Maria, it welcomed displaced Puerto Ricans and gave them an in-state tuition break.

Like hundreds of universities around the country, the University of Central Florida’s Hispanic population has been growing, rising from 21.6 percent in fall 2014 to 26 percent today. Nationally, Hispanic college enrollment grew from 8 to 19 percent of all students between 1996 and 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Cyndia Muñiz, UCF’s assistant director for Hispanic-serving initiatives, said her institution has embraced the growth. “We want to be an example of what it means to be a Hispanic-serving institution, if not the example,” she said.

There are incentives to do so. Any school with at least 25 percent Hispanic enrollment can apply to be federally recognized as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a label that can qualify them for federal grants. UCF hit that enrollment threshold in the 2017-18 school year. It expects to be on the Department of Education’s list of Hispanic-serving schools by the end of 2018, Muñiz said.

During the 1995-96 school year, there were just 131 schools that fit the definition of a Hispanic-serving college or university. By 2016-17, there were 492, ranging from well-known four-year schools such as the University of California, Irvine to regional two-year schools such as New Jersey’s Essex County College. Nearly two-thirds of Latino undergraduates attend Hispanic-Serving Institutions, according to estimates by Excelencia in Education, an organization that advocates for Latinos in higher education. But the federal budget for HSIs isn’t keeping up, leaving many schools out of the running for one of the coveted, competitive federal grants.

And soon, there will be many more of these schools. In 2016-17 there were 333 colleges and universities on track to become Hispanic-serving, what Excelencia calls emerging HSIs. The schools have between 15 and 24.9 percent Latino enrollment.

Many colleges and universities are eager for the Hispanic-Serving Institution label. Beyond the potential grant dollars, being identified as “Hispanic-serving” makes them more attractive to minority students as schools vigorously compete for dwindling numbers of undergraduate learners. But advocates say the label can be hollow. That’s because the Department of Education doesn’t look at what services or programs a university offers these students, just their numbers.

Hispanic-Serving Institutions

“We have to raise the standards and expectations of what it is to be really serving our students,” said Deborah Santiago, co-founder of Excelencia in Education.

“As more and more institutions hit that enrollment threshold, we have to raise the standards and expectations of what it is to be really serving our students,” said Deborah Santiago, co-founder of Excelencia in Education, at an event in Washington, D.C., in September.

Related: More Hispanics are going to college. The bad news? They’re still behind

One measurement of how well a school serves its students is graduation rates. Latino students at Hispanic-Serving Institutions typically have higher graduation rates than Latino students at non-HSIs, according to a December 2017 report from The Education Trust, a nonprofit organization that advocates for low-income students. For example, Latino students who had an SAT score in the 1000 range and attended a Hispanic-Serving Institution had a 51 percent six-year graduation rate. Those who went to a non-HSI had a 46 percent graduation rate.

Yet several institutions on the list of Hispanic-Serving Institutions have wide gaps in graduation rates between their white and Hispanic students. For example, at Oklahoma Panhandle State University, the six-year graduation rate for Latino students pursuing a bachelor’s degree is 20 percent, but for all students it’s 43 percent and for white students it’s 46 percent, according to a Hechinger analysis.

“Despite their growth, HSIs have been criticized for solely being ‘Hispanic-enrolling,’ meaning they enroll a large percentage of Latina/o students but do not necessarily produce equitable outcomes,” wrote Gina Garcia, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, in the Review of Higher Education journal in 2016. “Focusing solely on enrollment and graduation rates creates a limited understanding of what it means to have an identity for serving Latina/o students.”

At Oklahoma Panhandle State University (OPSU), the recent boost in Latino student enrollment is a reflection of demographic changes in the Panhandle region. Hispanics are more than 50 percent of those younger than 44 in Texas County, where the university is located, according to a report from the Oklahoma Policy Institute.

OPSU was recognized as a Hispanic-Serving Institution in February of 2018, and the administration says it’s trying to cater to its Latino students. The university is a member of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), and students participate in the group’s internship program, which serves as a pipeline to get more Latinos into the federal workforce. Director of Hispanic student services Teri Mora regularly accompanies members of the school’s Hispanic American Leadership Organization student group to the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute conference. OPSU students also won the National Hispanic College Quiz in 2015 and 2017. This year, the university started an alumni group for Latino students to strengthen engagement with graduates.

But it recognizes that its graduation rates for Latino students are far from stellar.

Related: Many state flagship universities leave black and Latino students behind

The university is in need of more resources, says Ryan Blanton, vice president of outreach. Oklahoma has slashed appropriations for higher education. Per-student funding fell by more than 30 percent between 2008 and 2017, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research institution that examines how to reduce poverty and inequality.

Becoming an HSI was critical for seeking resources to help the university close the graduation gap, says Blanton. “That allows us to go after federal programs designated specifically to increase graduation rates and better support Hispanic students in higher education.”

Nancy Melendez, a member of OPSU’s student senate and Hispanic American Leadership Organization, believes the school’s HSI designation will have a positive effect. “It’s definitely an improvement not just for us, but I think, for all minorities, that we’re creating a bigger diversity,” said Melendez, a 26-year-old senior from Mexico. “Not only are we growing in numbers, but we’re bettering ourselves.”

Forging an identity is part of the challenge of being Hispanic-serving in not just name but also practice. Unlike historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), the most well-known category of minority-serving institutions, Hispanic-serving schools were not created with the sole purpose of educating minority students. HBCUs were started in the 1800s because African-Americans were initially barred from enrolling in white colleges. Historically black schools are known for having curricula, faculty and student groups that center on black culture, and have been largely run by African-Americans since their incarnation. The term Hispanic-serving institution wasn’t created until the early 1990s, and receiving this designation does not mean a school is steeped in Latino culture or curricula.

The learning environment at Hispanic-serving schools varies widely. At some, such as University of California, Irvine and Florida International University, students can get a degree in Spanish. At others, such as Oklahoma Panhandle State University and Massachusetts’ Cambridge College, students don’t have this option. A Hechinger Report analysis found that at some schools, such as The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, over 30 percent of faculty are Latino. At others, such as California’s Mount Saint Mary’s University, less than 10 percent of faculty are Latino. On average, about 21 percent of faculty at Hispanic-Serving Institutions identify as Latino, according to a 2015 report from New America, a left-leaning think tank. At HBCUs, about 57 percent of faculty identify as black, according to a 2013 report from the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

Currently, any school that meets the definition of an HSI can apply for certain grants, such as the Title V grant and the Title III Part F grant, administered by the U.S. Department of Education, which are awarded for five-year periods. The grants enable Hispanic-Serving Institutions to expand resources for Latino students. Title III Part F helps Latinos and low-income students who want a degree in science, technology, engineering or math, and the average grant amount is $775,000. Many Title V Grant requests are north of $2 million.

But plenty of schools that apply get zero dollars, and advocates worry that the growing number of institutions will quickly drain the pool of funding from Congress. In fiscal year 2015, the last year for which the Department of Education has data, Congress appropriated more than $100 billion for Title V. For Title III Part F — the STEM grant — the appropriation was nearly $95 million in 2013.

Related: How failing to get more Hispanics to college could drag down all Americans’ income

“There is still a huge gap, because the number of HSIs continues to grow more rapidly every year than the amount of dollars coming from Congress,” said Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, which has lobbied for more federal money for these grants. “Only about half or less of all the HSIs get some grant funding at any given year because there is not enough money for everyone.”

As the number of Hispanic-Serving Institutions increases, “you have more competition,” Flores said.

The label is more “sexy” now, says Santiago of Excelencia, because of the potential for federal grants, but its broad definition doesn’t always motivate schools to do the hard work of serving. That’s all the more reason to make the designation more meaningful: “We have seen institutions that say look … I’m an HSI because of my demography,” Santiago said. “I’m not necessarily an HSI where I own that definition because of my intentionality and my impact.”

Excelencia is one organization that’s trying to help schools act on their mission and increase the number of Latino college graduates.

On October 11, Excelencia announced the Seal of Excelencia, a voluntary certification for which institutions can apply. The seal will highlight schools that go above and beyond to help Latino students excel.

“The Seal of Excelencia is a way to codify what it really means to serve Latino students, not just enroll them,” Santiago said. “The seal is critical because we need to find ways to recognize what it means to serve these students well.”

Santiago anticipates that, initially, 20 schools will receive the seal. Those that apply but aren’t awarded a seal can participate in a “Ladder of Engagement … a way for us to bring together technical assistance around data, practice and leadership — which are the three pillars of the Seal of Excelencia — for institutions that want to do a better job.” The assistance will include improving curricula and faculty hiring, along with bolstering other practices to boost Latino student enrollment, academic performance and graduation rates.

“We think there needs to be more to differentiate or to better understand institutions that are taking seriously their commitment to the students who are enrolling and helping them to persist and complete,” Santiago said.

Even at the University of Central Florida, students say there’s work to be done. Puerto Rico native Jennifer Tirado came to UCF right after high school, just shortly after her family moved to Florida. In her early months on campus, the presence of Latino culture left something to be desired.

The 21-year-old senior remembers just one campus restaurant that specialized in Latino food — Cafe Bustelo — when she arrived. Now there’s also Pollo Tropical and Gringos Locos. More substantially, last year students formed the Puerto Rican Student Association, and now Tirado is its president.

She says the fact that the University of Central Florida is a Hispanic-Serving Institution is important. “It also means that the university cares about the Hispanic population.”

This story about Hispanic-Serving Institutions was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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