Four years ago, administrators at the University of Central Florida realized the college was on the cusp of becoming a "Hispanic-Serving Institution" (HSI), a federal designation given to colleges and universities where at least one-quarter of undergraduate students are of Hispanic origin.
The new label would allow the public university to compete for federal grants set aside for those schools and might attract even more Latino students. But it would also bring a heightened feeling of responsibility: to ensure that those students were succeeding at the same rate as their white peers.
So UCF did what many colleges faced with changing demographics do — it formed a committee. That committee evolved into a task force that began disaggregating data to better understand who UCF's Latino students were and where they were struggling. They got advice from other HSIs and hired an assistant director of Hispanic-serving initiatives to lead the effort.
Similar preparations are underway at colleges across the country as a growing number of campuses approach the threshold for qualifying as an HSI. There are 328 "emerging HSIs" — institutions with enrollment between 15% and 24% Hispanic — spread across 35 states, and the list is growing. During the past decade, an average of 30 institutions have become HSIs each year.
That expansion is a result of rapid growth in the U.S. Latino population, coupled with an increase in that group's college-going rate. Some of the new HSIs are colleges that have stepped up recruitment of Latino students in order to diversify their student bodies or to offset a decline in white high school graduates.
Others, like UCF, are simply changing along with their communities. (Central Florida has seen an influx of people from Puerto Rico and Venezuela in recent years due to economic challenges and natural disasters in those places.)
Addressing 'deficit narratives'
An increase in the number of HSIs means more colleges are experimenting with better ways to serve this growing segment of their student body. They're adding more Latino faculty and staff and are expanding cultural programming and academic support for Latino students.
But Gina Garcia, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Pittsburgh who counsels colleges through cultural change, says such one-off efforts aren't enough. Before institutions begin thinking about creating new programs and services for Latino students, she says, they need to tackle the cultural biases and low expectations that can hinder those students' success.
"Think about the deficit narratives you have," she said. Many Latinos who enroll in HSIs come from underfunded high schools where they may not have been adequately prepared for college. Do you focus on their shortcomings or on their strengths, she asked.
"You can't serve students if you don't believe they are going to succeed," she said. "You have to approach it from an asset-based perspective and say, 'Our students are going to succeed, and it's our responsibility to get them there.'"
Such cultural change isn't easy, and it has to come from the top, says Lorelle Espinosa, vice president for research at the American Council on Education. In practice, it can include educating administrators about implicit bias, and training faculty and staff in how to craft curricula that honors and reflects diverse experiences and worldviews.
Colleges also need to recognize that Latino students are not a monolith but rather a diversity of ethnicities with distinct cultures and values, said Deborah Santiago, CEO for the advocacy group Excelencia in Education. A Cinco de Mayo party may make Mexican students feel welcome on campus, but it's likely to do little for Dominican ones.
"The first step is to develop a profile of who your students are today," she said. "Know who you are serving."
More competition for grants
Growth in the number of HSIs has also made competition for federal grants much stiffer.
The federal government has supported HSIs since the mid-1990s, when Congress authorized grants to the colleges under Title V of the Higher Education Act. Since then, other agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation, have started smaller grant programs for HSIs.
The programs aim to strengthen the colleges and give them access to federal research grants, which often go to better-resourced institutions.
But funding for the programs has not kept pace with growth in the number of HSIs. In the years between 2008 and 2017, the number of HSIs nearly doubled, to 523 colleges, while federal spending under Title V, the largest pot of money available to HSIs, grew by only 15%.
The result: "More institutions are competing for basically the same funds," said Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. That means many colleges seeking to transform their institutions will need to find other funds.
UCF, which became an HSI in 2019, was rejected for a grant this year. Still, it has found creative ways of building a more inclusive campus. That includes asking faculty who are seeking federal grants available only to HSIs to sign a statement that encourages them to consider how their research will involve or benefit Latino students and faculty.
Cyndia Morales Muñiz, the director of HSI Culture and Partnerships at UCF, said she doesn't want faculty to "lose sight of why they're able to compete for the grant."
"The first step is to develop a profile of who your students are today. Know who you are serving."
CEO, Excelencia in Education
Felician University, a private Catholic college in New Jersey that enrolled 1,624 undergraduates in 2018, was turned down for a grant a few years ago. But with support from private foundations and donors, the college has invested more than $500,000 in student aid, tutoring and academic coaching, and it has nearly closed its completion gap between white and Latino students. Those two groups make up equal shares of the student body, at slightly less than a third each.
Over the past eight years, Hispanic-student retention has risen 20%, while their six-year graduation rate has increased by 25%.
Anne Prisco, the president of the college, believes small colleges like hers are at a disadvantage in competing for scarce dollars because "we can't argue we'll have the same impact in numbers."
"It's almost like we need a category for smaller schools," she said.
Leading by example
Others are calling for greater clarity around what it means to be a Hispanic-serving institution and not just a Hispanic-enrolling one. Last year, Excelencia in Education created a "Seal of Excelencia" to recognize colleges making significant strides around the former. The inaugural cohort of nine colleges was announced in June.
Among the recipients was the University of Arizona, which recently created an HSI Fellows program and a certificate for inclusive leadership. The university, which became an HSI in 2018, just hired an associate director for HSI initiatives who is focused on supporting Latino students seeking internships and other learning experiences.
Santiago, Excelencia's CEO, urged colleges that are close to becoming HSIs, or that recently became one, to check out the resources her group offers to help HSIs serve Latino students.
"Learn what others are doing, so you're not starting from scratch," she said.