What Does Hispanic-Serving Mean, Anyway?

Anne-Marie Núñez
Associate Professor in Higher Education, Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Department
University of Texas at San Antonio

One quality all HSIs have in common is that they enroll at least 25% Latino FTE (full-time enrolled) undergraduate students. Beyond that, however, defining what it means to be an HSI is an elusive task, as these institutions include public and private not-for-profit 4-year institutions in several states and in Puerto Rico. My colleagues and I have also found that many HSIs specialize in health, religion, or technical fields. So the institutional characteristics and missions of HSIs, let alone the organizational behaviors of HSIs, are incredibly diverse.

HSIs play an essential role in raising Latino postsecondary attainment; so much so that any plan to increase overall educational attainment in the U.S. must involve them. Similarly, HSIs’ organizational behaviors should target Latino student success.

Too often, student success is defined in very narrow and individualistic terms. The most popular measure of institutional success is six-year graduation rates, which is often used in measuring higher education accountability, in part because it is easily available information from all institutions. HSIs tend to have lower graduation rates, thus making their institutional performance look weak by conventional standards.

However, a more careful look at the data reveals that these lower graduation rates can primarily be attributed not to organizational behavior that neglects Latino students, but to precollege demographic and academic preparation differences between the students that enroll in HSIs and those who do not, as well as the fact that HSIs are woefully underfunded. That is, when student characteristics and institutional funding are taken into account, the gap between HSIs and non-HSIs in Latino student graduation rates disappears. So it is important to consider HSIs’ capacity to “serve” their students within the broader context of the structural challenges that their students have historically faced, as well as HSIs’ limited institutional resources.

Expanding the view of what it means to “serve” Latino students beyond graduation rates invites us to attend to the relatively positive experiences of Latino students in HSIs. Institutions with higher Latino enrollments (including HSIs) provide environments where fewer Latino students report experiencing racial/ethnic discrimination. Latino students in HSIs, compared with those in non-HSIs, are also more likely to report having a high academic self-concept. This is an important condition, considering that one of the most critical non-cognitive factors in predicting college graduation is academic self-concept, but Latinos tend to express less confidence in their academic abilities than members of other racial/ethnic groups.

Other factors also shape how HSIs can be more supportive campus climates for Latinos. Faculty and administrators in HSIs are more likely to come from Latino backgrounds, and even though being Latino is no guarantee of supporting Latino students, Latino higher education personnel can often serve as important role models for these students. Regardless of their ethnic background, faculty in HSIs are more likely to employ student-centered pedagogical approaches, including class discussions, group projects, reflective writing and journaling, community service, and allowing students to shape the content of their coursework.

In addition to fostering more supportive campus climates for Latino students, HSIs also play an important role in cultivating Latino leaders and advocates and in strengthening local communities. Research shows that Latino students in HSIs are more likely than their counterparts in other institutions to be engaged in community service and social change. Furthermore, many HSIs play an essential role in providing postsecondary education to local members of historically underserved communities who might otherwise not pursue higher education. Thus, HSIs strengthen the civic and economic well being of these regions.

Unfortunately, trends in some state and federal policies may have unintended negative consequences for HSIs, potentially penalizing HSIs for their often lower graduation rates when, in reality, HSIs are doing more with less to serve their students. Recently, I argued in a report to the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics [begins at 10:40 mark] and in a hearing on Capitol Hill that accountability policies that focus solely on graduation outcomes do not recognize the distinctive higher education opportunities that HSIs provide for underserved communities and “post-traditional” students. In short, to account for a more complete set of factors that affect college graduation is the more equitable and accurate way to assess institutional performance.

Much of the research referred to here also appears in the recently released book Hispanic-Serving Institutions: Advancing Research and Transformative Practice, which I have co-edited with UCLA professor Sylvia Hurtado and Excelencia in Education research director Emily Calderón Galdeano. The studies in this book use multiple data sources and methods to address the diverse settings, broader contexts, and organizational behaviors of HSIs. Current research suggests that, to develop policies that are more supportive of HSIs, it is crucial to examine HSIs’ performance in the context of the students that these colleges serve, the resources they leverage, and the benefits they provide for their local communities and society at large.

Dr. Anne-Marie Núñez is an associate professor in higher education at the University of Texas at San Antonio, the second largest Hispanic-Serving Institution on the U.S. mainland. Her award-winning research focuses on how to promote equity in postsecondary success, particularly for members of historically underserved groups, including Latino students.