The Rise of Hispanic-Serving Institutions and the Path Forward

Apr 19, 2021

Hispanic-Serving Institutions make up 17 percent of all U.S. public and nonprofit colleges—yet they enroll 67 percent of all Hispanic and Latino undergraduates.

That data, published in April, underscores the huge responsibility facing the country’s more than 500 Hispanic-Serving Institutions, so designated because at least a quarter of their students are Hispanic. More colleges will soon join their ranks, as enrollment of Hispanic and Latino students in higher education is expected to exceed 4.4 million students by 2025. Already, more than 300 colleges are classified as “emerging Hispanic-Serving Institutions.”

As institutions seek and ultimately gain HSI status, their leaders must fully embrace the responsibility of being Hispanic-serving—not merely Hispanic-dwelling—institutions. Education is the catalyst for change and economic mobility in this country, and colleges must lead the fight to ensure that all students receive a quality education and are provided with an infrastructure from which to propel their lives, and ultimately the lives of their families.

As American civil rights activist Cesar Chavez said, “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.”

Hispanic-Serving Institutions have the power to unlock that social change. To do so, they need strategic commitment to student success, economic equity and mobility, and inclusive excellence.

The History of Hispanic-Serving Institutions

The story of HSIs is one of opportunity, triumph and the American dream. The national embrace of these institutions represents a societal change 30-plus years in the making—a shift that should not be taken for granted.

According to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, a person who identifies as Hispanic or Latino is someone of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish-culture heritage, regardless of race. That definition developed over time. Around the time President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed the week beginning September 15, 1968, as National Hispanic Heritage Week, a revolution was underway within the U.S. Census Bureau as to how Hispanics should be accounted for within the U.S.

According to the Population Reference Bureau, prior to the 1970 census, Hispanics were not counted as a single group. In fact, the question on Hispanic origin was added to the survey in spring 1969, late in the planning process. The inaugural Hispanic census question resulted in a total of 9.6 million Hispanics recorded as living in the U.S. as of 1970, according to Pew Research Center. Ten years later in 1980, the Hispanic population was tallied at 14.5 million.

Unlike Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions were not created to exclusively educate students of Hispanic or Latino origin. Instead, HSIs first began as a grassroots movement in the 1980s due to the shifts in demography and the increase in Hispanic enrollment in higher education, according to research published by the American Council on Education.

However, it is important to note that at this time, “Hispanic-Serving Institution” was an institutional term that had not breached mainstream. That is, until the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities was founded in 1986 thanks to efforts out of Our Lady of the Lake University. In 1992, the organization led the effort asking Congress to officially recognize campuses with significant Hispanic enrollment as federally designated Hispanic-Serving Institutions and to begin targeting federal appropriations to those campuses. In 1995, HSIs were granted $12 million from the federal government to champion Hispanic success in higher education. Most recently, HSIs were appropriated more than $140 million in 2020.

Looking to the Future

Since 1970, the recorded U.S. Hispanic population has grown to 60.6 million—an increase of more than six times. Hispanic people now make up 18.5 percent of the entire U.S. population.

Along with that growth has come the continued expansion of HSIs, of which community colleges account for the largest share, with 41 percent. It’s also led to the growth of what are now known as emerging HSIs: colleges that do not yet have the critical mass of Hispanic and Latino student enrollment required but that may soon meet the criteria as their enrollment grows and Latino representation increases.

The responsibility facing HSIs and emerging HSIs is great. It requires strategic institutional focus to ensure the dreams of their students are realized. The following are three key considerations for HSIs and emerging HSIs in this next era of higher education:

Commitment to Student Success Throughout the Institution.

The number of HSIs has increased on average by 29 institutions per year since 2013, according to HACU. This growth in colleges achieving the HSI designation is commendable and speaks to the shifting demographics in the U.S.

However, it is critically important for these institutions to embrace intentional and well-resourced efforts aimed at fostering inclusive and engaging learning environments for students of all races, cultures, and identities. Each college has a responsibility to create inclusive learning environments that equitably ensure the success of students, including those privileged to carry the remarkable designation of "HSI."

In an effort to honor HSIs for their commitments to Hispanic and Latino student success, every year Excelencia in Education awards evidence-based programs with the Examples of Excelencia Award. Last year’s winners include Lone Star College-North Harris for its Mi Casa Es Su Casa Program; University of Arizona for its Arizona’s Science, Engineering and Math Scholars Program; Boston College School of Social Work for its Latinx Leadership Initiative; and Generation Hope for its Scholar Program for college students who are parents.

Economic Equity and Mobility.

According to a study published by the Economic Policy Institute, in 2017 Hispanic men made 14.9 percent less in hourly wages than comparable white men, while Hispanic women made 33.1 percent less than comparable white men. Conversation about inequitable earnings and about initiatives that may close this pay gap must be at the top of the agenda for HSIs and emerging HSIs, along with their workforce partners. Who better to advocate for the advancement of Hispanic communities than the primary workforce-supplying entities: colleges?

Embracing Inclusive Excellence Institutionally.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities defines inclusive excellence through four primary elements: focus on student intellectual and social development; developing and using organizational resources to enhance student learning; attention to the cultural differences learners bring to the educational experience and that enhance the enterprise; and welcoming community that engages all of its diversity in the service of student and organizational learning. HSIs and emerging HSIs must embrace the full deployment of inclusive excellence.

This requires institutional mission adoption, strategic plan inclusion, resource allocation commitment, and systems accountability. Among four-year institutions, the University of Arizona—a 2019 Seal of Excelencia winner and an Outstanding Member Institution of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities—has embodied such commitment with its Hispanic Serving Institutes Initiatives. Through an array of programs, the University of Arizona has supported the advancement of inclusive best practices on a national scale.

In the community college sector, Community College of Aurora—an HSI that most recently won the American Association of Community College’s Advancing Diversity Award—has integrated inclusive excellence into its strategic plan and long-term campus integration plan.

Through institutional commitment like that of these model institutions, HSIs will be best positioned to realize student success and help their students achieve the dream of economic mobility.


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