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The number of colleges with Latino enrollment of at least 25 percent has declined during the pandemic, reversing a 20-year trend in higher education, and putting these students at a disadvantage, experts say.

Colleges with at least 25 percent Latino enrollment are designated as Hispanic-serving Institutions, or HSIs, by the federal government and are eligible for certain grant programs to further Latino student success. Such resources can improve the quality of education for these students and ensure they receive enough support to earn their degrees.

Data from the 2020-2021 academic year shows that 42 colleges previously designated as HSIs dipped below the threshold that qualifies them.

At the same time, 32 new HSIs were added, leaving the list of schools with this designation 10 shorter than it was the year before. This is the first time in two decades that the total number of HSIs has fallen, according to the advocacy group Excelencia in Education, which tracks colleges that are at and around the HSI threshold. Advocates attribute these shifts to drops in enrollment, changes in the way some colleges report their student demographics, and a handful of small, private, nonprofit colleges designated as HSIs that closed entirely.

Despite the decrease of almost 2 percent, the total number of HSIs still stands at 559. Although they represent only about 18 percent of all postsecondary institutions in the United States and Puerto Rico, they enroll about 66 percent of all Latino students, according to Excelencia in Education. 

Nationally, the number of Latino students enrolled in college between the fall of 2019 and the fall of 2021 decreased by about 7 percent, data from the National Student Clearinghouse shows. But the Latino population in the United States continues to increase.

Related: Why white students are more likely to graduate than Black and Latino students at public universities 

The decrease in HSIs and the decrease in Latino student enrollment point to a clear conclusion for Deborah Santiago, the president and CEO of Excelencia in Education: Institutions need to invest more and work harder to serve Latino students pursuing degrees. And even though enrollment is the sole criterion for earning HSI status, Santiago said efforts need to go beyond that, and do more to determine what it actually means to serve and support Latino students.

“You have to know who you’re serving and what serves them well, and something that works in another community might not work in yours,” Santiago said during a recent Exelencia online event. “It does take that extra effort, rather than assuming” to know what Latino students need.

Instead of focusing exclusively on the deficits they assume these students will have, college administrators need to focus on the value of the Hispanic culture and community, and find a way to leverage that to help the students succeed, Santiago said.

Related: Mandatory advising at colleges looks more like social work 

In a recent Congressional hearing, Northern Arizona University’s president José Luis Cruz Rivera said that investing in HSIs will help reduce educational inequities and will ultimately be an investment in the country’s economy. 

Northern Arizona University has about 26 percent Latino students — just over the threshold needed for HSI status. He urged Congress to increase the federal cash flow to HSIs and other colleges that serve large populations of students from underrepresented groups by boosting Pell Grants and funding infrastructure improvements. 

Nationally, greater investment in the K-12 public school system will also be critical, Cruz Rivera said, to help foster students’ college aspirations and ensure they’re ready to pursue them. 

“Attending one of these institutions could be a path for many Americans to achieve a successful career.”

Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, Republican of Iowa

U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, a Republican from Iowa, said despite the infusion of federal pandemic relief funds, colleges need to be strategic about how to use their regular funding to tailor their academic programs to help students excel in the workforce.

HSIs and other institutions that serve students from historically underrepresented groups “are known for being engines of upward mobility for millions of students,” Miller-Meeks said. “Attending one of these institutions could be a path for many Americans to achieve a successful career.”

Related: Flagship universities don’t enroll proportionate numbers of Black and Latino students 

At the University of California, Riverside, serving Latino students during the pandemic to make sure they stay enrolled and engaged has been a challenge, but one that administrators find worth taking up, said Chancellor Kim Wilcox.

The university has been an HSI since 2008, and its Latino enrollment has hovered around 40 percent for several years. For Latino, Black and white students, the six-year graduation rate is about 75 percent, a number Wilcox hopes to increase for all students. 

To do that, he said, the university is working to identify and address the specific needs of different student groups, including racial and ethnic groups, students who were formerly in the foster care system and students from other historically underserved groups. He said they are trying to foster a sense of belonging on campus from the first year and to make classes accessible at more times throughout the day to accommodate students with work or family responsibilities. 

“You need to be deliberate,” Wilcox said. “Some things that help all students help all students, but there are groups of students who need particular attention.”

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