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Una Fuerza to Reckon With

For the past 15 years, Hispanic-Serving Institutions around the country have been facing the challenges, and fulfilling the educational promise, of the growing numbers of Latino students.
University Business, Sep 2007

LAST JANUARY KRISTA RODIN ARRIVED AS THE campus executive officer at Northern Arizona University Yuma with a major problem to solve. "Nothing was in place to serve Hispanic students," she says, even though they comprised 57 percent of the student body. "We needed to build programs helpful to them, and importing the curriculum from Flagstaff (the principal NAU campus) without modifications was not working."

So Rodin started making changes, from implementing writing courses geared towards the largely first-generation Latino student population to developing a grant for an entire Hispanic studies program. She also applied for federal status as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI). "It was the first thing I did when I got here," she recalls.

By March, NAU Yuma had joined the burgeoning ranks of more than 200 officially designated HSIs, all of which have at least a 25 percent Hispanic student population and are eligible to share almost $100 million in annual grants under Title V of the federal Higher Education Act.

The league of HSIs, which is barely 15 years old, reaches from community colleges to state universities across 15 states and Puerto Rico, and enrolls almost two-thirds of all Latino college students. While the majority of these schools are located in the states bordering Mexico, they also include members as far flung as St. Peter's College in Jersey City, N.J.; Columbia Basin College in Pasco, Wash.; Morton College in Cicero, Ill.; and Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kan.

The federal recognition of HSIs in 1992 has given a higher profile to the challenge and promise of Hispanic education, says Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. HACU was founded in 1986 by 18 member colleges and became a driving force behind the law that established HSIs. The organization also includes more than 200 associate members and partner institutions that have not yet passed the 25 percent enrollment threshold but have sizeable Hispanic populations.

"There's a much greater awareness of the impact of HSIs on the economy and on the future workforce of this country," Flores says, noting that Hispanic-Americans represent the fastest-growing segment of the population and are projected to make up one-third of the workforce by 2025. "If we don't prepare them well for highly skilled jobs, we'll all be in trouble. This is not just about Latino success. It's about our national well-being."

Milton Gordon is the president of California State University, Fullerton, which became an HSI in 2004 and graduates more than 1,300 Hispanic students annually, sixth most in the nation, according to a recent survey (see sidebar on page 48). Gordon himself attended Xavier University in New Orleans-one of the country's Historically Black Colleges and Universities-and he insists that having an official status as a minority institution makes an immediate difference. "What an HBCU or an HSI does is raise the national level of consciousness, conversation, and thought process about how we can help these groups," Gordon says.

"It's part of the American story. That's what we've done to respond to student populations through the years," adds Tomas Arciniega, the assistant to the chancellor of the California State University system and the former president of CSU Bakersfield, another HSI.

What's also become part of the story is a newfound and increasing influence in the corridors of power. HACU has led the way in Washington, actively lobbying and rolling out an extensive legislative agenda for 2008 that includes almost doubling the Title V monies available to HSIs from the U.S. Department of Education and casting a wider net for federal aid-from the Departments of Agriculture and Defense to the National Science Foundation and NASA.

The election in recent years of three Hispanic U.S. senators has helped the cause, notes HACU's Flores, as have the continuing efforts by longer-term congressmen such as Rub?n Hinojosa (D-Texas). This year, Hinojosa, who chairs the U.S. House Committee on Higher Education, introduced legislation to provide $125 million in 2008 specifically for HSI graduate programs.

The growing presence and clout of HSIs are a far cry, say educational leaders, from the place of Hispanic education just a few decades ago. Ricardo Fernandez, the president of Lehman College in the Bronx, New York, recently dug out an 1988 article referring to Hispanic-Americans as the "missing people" in higher education.

Fernandez says that description captures his own college experience during the early 1970s at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, which had fewer that 150 Latinos among its 20,000 students. "We didn't have a program to bring in Hispanic students," he explains. "No one was focusing on the pipeline."

Michael Acosta got his degree in electrical engineering from the University of Texas at El Paso 30 years ago, and worked at IBM for 20 years before returning to teach at his alma mater. "There was very little recognition of the opportunities in technology-related fields," he says of his undergraduate days. "We've come a long way since then and now reflect the community and the region," so much so, he adds, that the undergraduates in UTEP's College of Engineering are almost 80 percent Hispanic and the school has become the nation's largest producer of Hispanic engineering graduates.

Diana C?rdenas, an associate professor of English at Texas A&M Corpus Christi, has seen her classroom-and work-change dramatically over her long career. "When I first started teaching, students had no concept of what the word 'salsa' meant," she recalls. The vocabulary has grown.

The number of Hispanics attending a two- or four-year college grew from fewer than 400,000 in 1976 to  more than 1.8 million in 2004.

Cardenas has just co-edited a collection, entitled Teaching Writing with Latino/a Students and published by SUNY Press, gathered from HSIs around the country. "I came out of a tradition of reading certain authors and writing about certain things. It was more purely an exercise in language," says C?rdenas, stressing that the themes of the new book are drawing on the life experience of students and building their cultural, rather than mere literary, competence.

For all the individual advancements of recent years, educators at HSIs agree that they have forged a common mission to get their students to succeed-and to get them to college in the first place- through a spate of innovative programs on campus and in the community. And statistics show that they are achieving some success.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of Hispanics attending a two- or four-year college grew to more than 1.8 million in 2004, compared to fewer than 400,000 in 1976. During that time span, Hispanics came to represent 10.5 percent of all college students, compared to 3.5 percent almost 30 years earlier. On the graduate level, the ranks of Latinos multiplied almost five fold to 125,000.

Other numbers tell a more sobering story. A study released in June by the Hispanic Heritage Foundation found that while 98 percent of Latino high school students interviewed said they wanted to attend college and almost as many thought they would earn a degree, only 37 percent actually matriculated in 2004.

The last statistic comes as no surprise to former CSU Bakers- field president Arciniega. "You need to map out the steps to college starting from elementary school. In virtually all middle-class households, thinking about college is a given. It's not for many low-income families."

At Texas A&M Corpus Christi, undergraduates visit elementary and middle schools during the academic year, and youngsters come to campus for writing camp during the summer. "I began teaching in 1974, and I didn't see approaches like these," observes Cardenas. "It would not have happened without HSIs."

UTEP's College of Engineering offers summer programs to the same age groups, but in math and science. In the winter, the school hosts 250 youngsters and parents for a "science extravaganza" that features hands-on activities and alumni participation. "For a lot of these kids who haven't been on a campus, there's a magic in getting to see university students and professors," points out Acosta, currently the school's director of external relations.

"One of the most important things is bringing young students to campus and showing them what a college classroom is like and what to expect in college," agrees Cal State Fullerton's Milton Gordon. "These students can't be too young to show them a university." To underscore the point, the school invites kindergartners and their parents for a get-acquainted session.

The often bilingual outreach teams from many HSIs focus on educating parents as much as their children. At Cal State Fullerton-which has a high proportion of first- generation Hispanic-Americans-that education has continued for the past two years through an orientation in Spanish for new Latino students and their families.

"What we're trying to do now is work with parents to make them part of the success story," says Gordon. The sessions cover everything from the time commitments that college studies will take to the disappointments that students could face along the way.

At many HSIs, a system of advising, counseling, and mentoring follows. While administrators at these schools say that the services are available to all economically disadvantaged students on campus, they can target Latinos through Title V grants, and with good reason, they add. A study by the Pew Hispanic Center in 2005 revealed that barely a third of those Hispanics who had attended a junior or four-year college completed a bachelor's degree, a lower percentage than any other racial group.

The English department at Texas A&M Corpus Christi, has adjusted its writing curriculum-and made learning more culturally relevant-by forging connections with the surrounding Latino community. Diana C?rdenas notes, for example, that students in her report-writing course have visited housing projects in need of repair and have authored reports to the appropriate boards.

Hispanics are also more likely to fit the profile of nontraditional students and often graduate later than their peers, educators say. "It's a juggling act of family and work challenges," says Jos? Vicente, the president of Miami Dade College's North Campus. "That's where it's key for them to know they're not by themselves. The important thing is for them to persevere and continue to take even one course per term. The moment there's a gap, it takes a double effort to continue.

"We have faculty members who have been through what the students or their parents are going through," Vicente continues. "Along with the other support systems, that's what can make a difference."

Success in the so-called "STEM" areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics has proved more daunting. "In these fields we're behind the curve," says HACU president Antonio Flores.

Silas Abrego, Cal State Fullerton's associate vice president for student affairs, notes that remediation is a requirement for many undergraduates. "Forty percent of the students in the CSU system flunk introductory math courses," he says. "Title V allows us to work with instructors teaching the introductory math course to a diverse student body, and it also allows us to establish study cohorts led by graduate assistants."

At UTEP's engineering school, upperclassmen and graduate students provide mentoring services, and new students can take calculus courses that are more user-friendly. And, says UTEP's Acosta, there's a heightened emphasis on getting them involved early on in their chosen field.

They may have also extended their undergraduate careers as long as six years, but all in the service of being better prepared for the professional world, Acosta adds. "It takes them a while to graduate, but the reality is that most have to work while they're going to school. Instead of working at McDonald's, we get them working at companies in their field."

UTEP also takes pains to prepare future engineers for their fulltime careers with professional development seminars in everything from creating PowerPoint presentations to managing projects. Acosta points out that this training also takes cultural norms into account. "In the Hispanic culture it can be considered rude to be aggressive," he says. "I found out at IBM that I needed to be more assertive about expressing my ideas and asking for what I wanted."

Under the umbrella of "The Role of Hispanic-Serving Institutions in the Nation's STEM Enterprise," UTEP hosted a national gathering this past April of 175 college administrators, federal officials, and high-tech corporate representatives. Among the topics of concern were graduating more Hispanic students in these areas, increasing teacher preparation in math and science, and gaining access to the $136 billion promised over the next 10 years in the White House's American Competitiveness Initiative.

HACU's annual conference leverages the strength in numbers of its member institutions. Last year's 20th anniversary program in San Antonio featured tracks in public policy advocacy, best practices for capacity building, and partnerships and alliances.

But one of the biggest priorities at HSIs has been increasing the numbers of Latinos working and leading in higher education. "You want to be in a position to hire people with whom students can identify," says Arciniega. "Anytime you have a low-income population, it takes a while to get into the position where enough members move into university jobs, from staff work to PhDs. In many cases, it becomes a 'grow your own' proposition."

Along those lines, HACU has encouraged HSI administrators to bring student contingents to its conferences. "It's a way of creating consciousness among students of possible careers in academia," says Lehman College's Ricardo Fernandez. "And you don't need to be a professor. You could be a counselor, a researcher. You can be part of the enterprise."

Fernandez says that his Hispanic heritage also has made a significant difference in the way his school operates. "We've engaged in partnerships that didn't exist 20 years ago," he says. "I pushed hard and brought in people and set aside resources to do the work that the college wasn't paying attention to."

Among the changes, Lehman faculty and staff have been able to get release time for working on recruitment and retention. "Instead of teaching a course, they can do a study or a project to improve local schools," Fernandez suggests.

Miami Dade's Jos? Vicente seconds the notion of having a large Hispanic presence in running HSIs. "This is something we do from top to bottom," he says. "The board of trustees is fully committed to the point of being vigilant that the contracts we award are representative of the community we serve. It's part of the DNA of the institution."

Ron Schachter is a Boston-based freelance writer and a correspondent for National Public Radio.

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