Latino students now make up a fifth of all students enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities. This record enrollment of Latino students is forcing higher education leaders and practitioners to grapple with how to how best to support these students and ensure their success beyond enrollment.

Scholars like Gina Garcia, a professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley, a leading expert on Hispanic-Serving institutions (HSIs), believe that HSIs have an important part to play in preparing Latino students to succeed through and beyond college, and that the success of the growing number of Latino college students is closely tied to our country’s wellbeing and prosperity.

HSIs are nonprofit higher-education institutions of with a full-time equivalent (FTE) undergraduate student enrollment that is at least 25% Hispanic, as defined in federal legislation under Title V of the Higher Education Act (HEA). By definition, HSIs must also enroll a significant number of students receiving federal financial assistance — via the Federal Pell Grant, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, Federal Work-Study Program, or a Federal Perkins Loan — and have low average educational and general expenditures per full-time equivalent undergraduate student. HSIs that meet this definition per HEA Title V must apply to the US Department of Education to receive official federal designation as an HSI. After receiving this designation by the Department, HSIs can then apply for competitive federal funding available to HSIs outlined in HEA Titles III and V.

The history of the HSI designation dates to the 1970s, when the Hispanic Higher Education Coalition (HHEC) organized a broad-based coalition of Latino educators, leaders, and advocacy organizations to support the call for increased funding to colleges and universities enrolling the largest percentages of Latino students. Members of the HHEC testified in front of Congress about the systemic barriers that hold many Latino students back and negatively impact their educational attainment and employment prospects, calling for greater institutional support for Latino students to improve their educational and employment outcomes. In hearings, members of the HHEC noted that colleges and universities that enroll the largest percentage of Latinos received the least amount of funds via HEA Title III and advanced the idea of creating a unique designation for these institutions. Title III has historically provided funding to strengthen higher education institutions, especially those with fewer institutional resources. After more than a decade of advocacy, the term “Hispanic-Serving Institution” was formally adopted in 1992 with the reauthorization of the HEA. In 1995, Congress appropriated $12 million for HSIs under HEA Title V.

Although funding earmarked for HSIs has grown exponentially over the years, the number of HSIs eligible to compete for funds has also increased dramatically, creating funding inequities among HSIs. For example, in 2009 there were 293 HSIs eligible to compete for $216.7 million. By fall 2020, there were nearly twice as many (559) HSIs eligible to compete for $306.2 million. Additionally, in 2020, the average total grant awarded to HSIs that received federal competitive grant funding via Title V, Part A was about $570,000, or $114,000 annually over the five-year grant period. For under-resourced HSIs, which have limited resources to invest in programmatic efforts to support Latino students on campus, this federal investment is significant. However, not all under-resourced HSIs receive federal competitive grant funding.

HSIs who apply for and are awarded competitive HSI funds from the U.S. Department of Education can receive funds via HEA Title III, Part F (Hispanic-Serving Institutions – Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics and Articulation Programs ; HEA Title V, Part A (Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program); and Title V, Part B (Promoting Postbaccalaureate Opportunities for Hispanic Americans Program). Federally designated HSIs can also apply for competitive funding from other federal agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, who provide competitive funding opportunities for HSIs. The MSI Data Project shows that in 2020, 436 HSIs were eligible for competitive funding through Title V, Part A, but only 170 HSIs, or 39% of all eligible institutions, were funded; 261 HSIs were also eligible through Title V, Part B, but only 17 (or a mere 6.5%) received funding.

What’s more, while these federal competitive HSI programs provide funding to institutions, they do not provide direction for HSI practice. The HSI designation is based solely on enrollment and not on institutional mission — unlike Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and American Indian Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities (TCCUs), which were established with the explicit mission to serve Black and Native American students, respectively, many higher education institutions have been deemed HSIs purely because they’ve had an increase in Latino enrollment — and offers little guidance on how to remedy the historical exclusion of minoritized populations from higher education. It also doesn’t mandate how HSIs should address historical inequities in college enrollment or completion for Latino and low-income students in U.S. higher education institutions. That needs to change.

HSIs currently enroll 62% of all Latino undergraduate students, but it’s not enough to enroll Latino students; Garcia, for one, believes HSIs must find better ways to serve them. Drs. Garcia, and Anne-Marie Nuñez, a distinguished professor in educational leadership and foundations at the University of Texas at El Paso, and Vanessa Sansone, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Texas at San Antonio,  introduced the concept of “servingness,” along with a framework, to help HSIs produce more equitable outcomes for Latino students and ensure their holistic success during and after college by centering racial identity, equity, and consciousness.

These scholars argue that to better serve Latino students, institutions must redesign their organizational practices and policies to center those students. This means developing curricular and co-curricular structures that center Latino students, creating new units on campus to address the academic and personal needs of students, developing an HSI task force to lead these campus efforts, redesigning the institutional mission with an eye toward serving Latino students and communities, updating strategic plans to include objectives around serving Latino students, changing leadership and governance structures, improving institutional advancement activities, and/or boosting engagement with the local community. In her new book, Transforming Hispanic-Serving Institutions for Equity & Justice, Garcia calls for a complete organizational transformation that centers racial equity, social justice, and collective liberation.

Garcia and company believe that there are numerous indicators that can be used to assess how well a campus is serving Latino students. Some of these indicators include academic and non-academic outcomes and validating experiences that enhance the racial/ethnic identities of Latino students.

Institutions must create conditions that help Latino students meet academic outcomes such as retention, persistence, graduation, transfer, course completion, STEM degree completion, post-baccalaureate enrollment, and positive labor market outcomes.

Institutions must also create conditions that support the development of nonacademic outcomes for Latino students, or “liberatory outcomes,” such as positive academic self-concept, social agency, leadership identity, racial identity, critical consciousness, graduate school aspirations, civic engagement, and social justice orientations. These liberatory outcomes are highly correlated with more traditional academic outcomes, such as semester-to-semester GPA, persistence, and graduation.

Institutions must also provide positive, affirming, cultural experiences that support Latino students and validate their experiences. These include interactions with peers, faculty, and staff of the same racial-ethnic background and cultural signifiers on campus, such as murals by Latino artists on campus, that produce a welcoming, affirming environment,  and might also include linguistic servingness, or the ability to engage with Spanish-speaking peers, faculty, and staff that acknowledges and elevates the multilingual abilities of Latino students and families. Institutions must also assess their campus racial climates, the “current attitudes, behaviors, and practices of faculty, staff, and students at a higher education institution toward students based on their race/ethnicity”, so that Latino students’ experiences with racism, discrimination, and microaggressions are disrupted.

Garcia and other HSI scholars recognize that higher education institutions may need prompting and guidance from federal policymakers and competitive federal HSI grant programs to redesign their organizational practices and policies to center Latino students and their holistic success considering racial identity, equity, and critical race-consciousness. They say competitive federal HSI grant programs should incentivize HSIs to overhaul their existing educational structures to better serve diverse types of Latino students by incorporating the previously mentioned empirically developed metrics/indicators of “servingness” into these programs.

The inclusion of these indicators in federal competitive HSI grant investments will help ensure that HSIs address the historical inequities Latino students face in accessing and completing college, so these students can build on the economic, social, and personal promise of having a college degree and become healthy, engaged, and active citizens in a society that’s still grappling with discrimination against minoritized communities.

It’s time federal policymakers required institutions to center the Latino students that Titles III and V are designed to serve and push for a greater focus on racial equity, social justice, and collective liberation for Latino students, their families, and their communities. In our next blog, we’ll explore how competitive federal HSI programs can be updated to ensure that HSIs are serving Latino students and meeting their needs. Only in this way can we achieve a future in which HSIs provide the academic success, economic and social mobility, empowerment, and liberation that Latino students deserve.