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Latino Students and Colleges

March 9, 2006

Hispanic-serving institutions -- those where Hispanic students make up at least 25 percent of undergraduate enrollment -- make up about 6 percent of colleges and universities in the United States. But they enroll almost half of Latino college students.

A report being released today provides an in-depth look at these institutions and the issues raised by the concentration of Hispanic students at these colleges and universities. The concentration can be viewed in multiple ways, according to Deborah A. Santiago, author of the report and vice president for policy and research at Excelencia in Education, a group that focuses on Hispanic higher education issues and that is publishing the study (and plans follow-up reports as well).

The term "Hispanic serving" institutions is a relatively young one, dating to 1984, when members of Congress started proposing legislation to help colleges that enroll many Hispanic students. Unlike historically black colleges and tribal colleges, whose definitions relate directly to their missions and the way they were created, Hispanic-serving institutions include colleges that were created without any thought of serving Latino students -- and in some cases, these colleges only recently attracted significant numbers of such students.

What is clear from the report is that the number of these institutions is growing and will continue to grow. There are 236 Hispanic-serving institutions, up from 131 eight years ago, according to the report. Another 40 institutions have Latino undergraduate enrollments of between 20 and 24 percent so the number of Hispanic-serving institutions is likely to grow in the years ahead.

For many colleges, changing demographics in the region they serve turns them into a Hispanic-serving institution. At New York's Mercy College, for example, booming immigrant populations in parts of Westchester County (where the college's main campus is located) and in the Bronx (where another campus is located) have turned a campus that once did not have much of a Latino presence into one where about one-third of undergraduates are Latino.

Louise H. Feroe, president of the college, said that the shift in demographics in the region changed the college's student body, but not its focus. "Mercy College's mission always has been to grant opportunities to those students who otherwise wouldn't have an opportunity for higher education," she said. "We never set out to serve one ethnic group over another, but to serve everyone who is aspirational about college."

Many of the Hispanic students at Mercy are Puerto Rican or Dominican, but Feroe said that changes in immigrant demographics can show up quickly at the college, which has seen an influx of Peruvian students of late. In terms of planning educational services, Feroe said she doesn't focus on the countries of origin of Latino students, but on the division (which crosses those lines) between students who had a high school education in the United States and those who moved to the United States after high school education elsewhere.

More broadly, Feroe said that the designation of "Hispanic serving" is important for sending a message to prospective students and making the college eligible for certain programs. But she stressed that many of the needs of Latino students aren't that different from those of other students.

"Hispanic students need many of the same supports that other students need -- a welcoming community, a supportive environment, learning support in math and writing," she said. In language, there is a difference for many students. "Most of our students need writing remediation but Hispanic students need a particular kind of writing remediation if English is their second language."

Richard M. Rhodes, president of El Paso Community College (where about 85 percent of students are Latino), agreed that local demographics can dictate how important it is to label an institution as "Hispanic serving." At his institution, where the overwhelming majority of students are Latino, there is a natural emphasis on their needs, without time spent thinking of those needs as in any way unusual.

" 'Hispanic-serving institution' just describes the population your serve," Rhodes said. "The mission of the community college is to serve the community and our community's population is about 78 percent Hispanic, so we're just doing our job."

The report also examined the relative concentration of Latino students at Hispanic-serving institutions in different states. In some states, large majorities of Latino students are enrolled in those institutions, but in others, the institutions enroll only a small minority of Hispanic undergraduates.

Proportion of Latino Undergraduates at Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI's), by State

State Number of HSI's Percentage of Hispanic Undergraduates at HSI's
Arizona 12 42%
California 68 55%
Colorado   6 25%
Florida 10 40%
Illinois   8 36%
Kansas   1   3%
Massachusetts   1   1%
New Jersey   4 19%
New Mexico 23 90%
New York 12 31%
Puerto Rico 52 77%
Texas 37 57%
Washington   2 10%

Santiago said that high concentrations of Latino students at Hispanic-serving institutions could be a good or bad thing, and she hoped that the report would prompt states to ask some tough questions. "Is the high concentration a good thing in that there are places that the students are enrolling or is it not a good thing" with regard to flagship universities that generally do not have the designation? she asked.

Hispanic-serving institutions are more likely than other institutions to have open admissions, and less likely than other institutions to require completion of a college preparatory program in high school, the report says. More than half of Hispanic-serving institutions are community colleges.

Santiago said that these data should concern states. "States should ask if this means their work force isn't going to be attending flagships and isn't going to end up with bachelor's degrees," Santiago said.

The flip side of that analysis, she added, is that the high concentration could allow states or foundations that want to reach Latino students to do so easily -- by focusing on Hispanic-serving institutions. "For a policy maker, this could just mean that open admissions polices are working for these students at these institutions," Santiago said. "So this is a slam dunk. If we want to serve these Latino kids most directly, why don't I focus on these institutions?"

Santiago said that the aim of the report wasn't so much to offer definitive answers to these questions, but to put out data that would raise the questions.

 

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