Hispanic-Serving Grants?

Federal grants specifically for colleges that serve significant numbers of Hispanic students do not require the recipients to show that the spending reaches Hispanic students or that it improves their academic outcomes – and a review of how the funds are used shows that many grantees do not even try to make that case.

March 24, 2010

Federal grants specifically for colleges that serve significant numbers of Hispanic students do not require the recipients to show that the spending reaches Hispanic students or that it improves their academic outcomes – and a review of how the funds are used shows that many grantees do not even try to make that case.

While grant recipients defend the practice, arguing that any spending of these funds inevitably reaches Hispanic students because they make up significant proportions of the institutions' enrollments, some critics argue for more reporting aimed at ensuring that the money actually helps Latino students in some way.

Last year, Title V of the Higher Education Act of 1965 provided more than $16 million in competitive grants to 29 Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs), those whose undergraduate enrollment is at least 25 percent Hispanic. Institutional recipients must meet eligibility requirements; for example, they must have low average educational spending per student and certain percentages of their students must be deemed to come from “low income” backgrounds.

Grantee institutions may spend Title V funds on nearly anything: “construction, maintenance, renovation, and improvement in classrooms, libraries, laboratories, and other instructional facilities,” “establishing or improving an endowment fund,” “activities to improve student services, including innovative and customized instruction courses designed to help retain students and move the students into core courses.”

“There’s pretty broad latitude in what these grants might address,” said Margarita Benitez, director of higher education at the Education Trust who worked at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education when the Title V program was created. “As a former college president, I can tell you this is a president’s dream. It allows you to pursue any topic or any issue that is of interest to you.”

The 2009 grantee institutions, from 10 states and Puerto Rico, are pursuing a wide range of projects.

The Norco Campus of Riverside Community College, in California, is receiving more than half a million dollars annually for the five-year life of its Title V grant to develop a “computer game design and programming” curriculum. South Plains College, in Texas, is receiving nearly the same amount to introduce “wind/solar energy, physical therapy assistant and engineering technology” degree programs. Borough of Manhattan Community College, part of the City University of New York, is using its grant to create a “comprehensive e-learning center” to provide support services to online students.

Several other colleges are using grants to pay for student success initiatives aimed at improving the graduation and retention of all students considered “at risk.”

Benitez and other advocates for Hispanic students, however, worry that uses of these grants may be too broad for them to achieve their stated purpose to “expand educational opportunities for, and improve the academic attainment of, Hispanic students.”

She and others do not want to change the legislation to make the grants more restrictive or explicitly state that funds should be directed only toward Hispanic students; they take no issue with the fact that non-Hispanic students, including other underrepresented and low-income students, benefit from the grants.

Instead, these critics want institutional proposals to report on how whatever they are doing with the grant money is affecting Hispanic students and if it is working as well as planned. Though there are broad reporting requirements, there are none that stipulate institutions must show how Hispanic students specifically are being served by this spending.

“If you’re being awarded funds because you have a specific enrollment of Hispanic students, the least you could ask is what is going on with these students,” Benitez said. “This isn’t a limitation. You wouldn’t be doing something to the detriment of other students. Not to understand what works with what groups of students is irresponsible, though. There should be a reporting change to show how Hispanics are doing using disaggregated data, in addition to data showing clearly how all students are doing as a result of these projects.”

Other advocates for Hispanics, however, disagree strongly, arguing that the Title V grant program needs no such changes. Antonio R. Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, said there is no doubt in his mind that the funds benefit Hispanic students.

“The law spells out the ways in which they can use the money and their proposals reflect that,” Flores said. “All of the funding has to be justified; it’s competitive so not everyone gets money. It’s working as it’s intended to work. The reality is when a majority of Hispanic students [in all of higher education] attend these institutions, any way you spend the money to improve your institution, it’s going to affect them. I can’t see how they can not help Hispanic students.”

Flores compared institutional spending of Title V funds on adding a new major, facilities projects or broad student success initiatives to a city spending funds to improve a roadway or a sidewalk. Because everyone benefits from this spending, Latino students do as well. Officials from some of the Title V grantee institutions made similar arguments.

Ultimately, Flores argued that any funding directed toward Hispanic-serving institutions is welcome because of the lack of federal assistance they receive.

“HSIs only receive 52 cents for every dollar that all other institutions receive [on average] from the federal government per student,” Flores said. “To question whether they should do more with this will only create unnecessary concern for these institutions themselves.”

Critics, however, find flaws in the logic that broad-minded spending best serves Hispanic students.

“Their mentality is that a rising tide lifts all ships,” said Deborah A. Santiago, vice president for policy and research at Excelencia in Education, an advocacy group for Hispanic students. “That’s not the right mentality. Funding learning communities, for example, is a great way to spend the money. But are Hispanics being served in those learning communities? There’s no evaluation of these programs to show how they’ve improved Hispanic students. Let’s collect data on these learning communities not just to show how many students participate and how well they do, but how many Hispanics participate.”

Santiago, formerly a policy analyst with the Congressional Research Service and someone who worked on Title V issues at the U.S. Department of Education, said proposals from institutions do not typically offer benchmarks or goals for improvements in outcomes for Hispanic students, because the government does not require them. It would be relatively easy, she said, for the government to change regulations, through non-legislative means, to require such reporting.

“I’m not advocating that we only serve Hispanics with these funds, but I’m pressing for some intentionality here,” Santiago said.” If you have money because you’re an HSI, the presumption is that you’re serving Hispanic students. Let’s have them be a bit more explicit about how they’re serving them. If you’re buying new computers for the library, for example, how many Hispanics were in the library before and after? This is about making sure there’s some more clarity.”

Though officials from some Title V grantee institutions explained that they did not track outcomes for Hispanic students because they were not required to do so to earn the grant, others tracked such data for institutional reasons or to trumpet their successes. For example, South Plains College, which previously received a Title V grant to open a branch location in 2005, saw an increase in its enrollment of Hispanic students as a result of its spending. Officials who tracked the successes said that Hispanic enrollment at the new branch had grown from 45 to 56 percent since its opening. They also reported that the fall-to-fall retention of Hispanic students at the new branch improved from 12 to 29 percent during the same period.

Still, Benitez argued that most grantee institutions do not overtly direct spending of Title V money to Hispanic students or show how it affects them out of a fear of being negatively labeled.

“There’s this climate in higher education where people are leery or worried of it sounding like they’re backing affirmative action or opposed to a court decision as to what affects them,” Benitez said. “There’s a fear of political correctness and a fear of preferring one group over another. But people have almost gone too far in the other direction with this, saying ‘This is not for Latinos, it’s for everybody.’ ”

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