A look at the pluses and minuses of Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs)

By Carol Amoruso, HAV Editor


Editor’s NoteArticle continues from last month’s introduction, Navigating Higher Ed for Latinos: Part I


May 2007 – Latinos are attending institutions of higher learning in impressively growing numbers.  Figures from 1990 to 1999 show a 68% increase in post secondary school enrollment, from 782,000 to 1,317,000.  Especially encouraging is the fact that many are first generation college students, the first in their families to seek higher education.

At the same time, Latinos are decidedly more at risk of not completing their schooling than their non-Hispanic white counterparts, and over 50% of Hispanics in higher education choose 2-year schools offering associate degrees over 4-year baccalaureate programs.  Further, in 2003, only about half as many Latinos between the ages of 18 and 21 were attending college as non-Hispanic whites.

Are Latinos poised to approach parity in higher education with the now-dominant U.S. society, and how can the obstacles they are facing along the way be addressed?  We’ll try to shed some light on these questions in this, the second part the Hispanic American Village’s exploration of Hispanic higher education.  We’ll also broaden our look at Hispanic Serving Institutions, which the bulk of Latinos attend, and consider other schools for programs and policies that contribute to Hispanic achievement.

Basically, H.S.I.s are those post secondary schools with a mandated enrollment of at least 25% Hispanics; of these, 50% must be low-income. H.S.I.s are publicly funded and most have open, or non-selective admissions policies. Most of the H.S.I.s are 2-year schools.  It is a persistent point of discussion whether Hispanics are better served at H.S.I.s or non-H.S.I. schools which are more often more selective with regard to admissions, have much lower numbers of Hispanic students, little curriculum content of relevance to the Hispanic experience and few programs of outreach or support to the community.

H.S.I.s are often imprinted with Hispanicity; taking their lead from a long history of African-American serving institutions of higher learning, many were founded on the expressed need of the community as great numbers of Chicanos and Puerto Ricans especially took to the streets in the 60s and 70s, clamoring for a system of higher education to celebrate and propagate the history and contribution of Latinos and the Latin world.   The specialness and needs of institutions that served Hispanic students was not recognized on the federal level until 1992.


Hostos Community College—Up From the Streets

Hostos Community College in the Bronx, named after Puerto Rican educator, writer and patriot, Eugenio Maria de Hostos (1839 – 1903), is part of New York State’s vast system of associate and 4-year schools. Hostos was established in 1968, after fierce pressure on the part of the city’s Puerto Rican community, as a bridge between academia and the social conditions and upheavals affecting caribeños in the barrios of East Harlem and the Bronx.  Today, with a more globalized enrollment, yet still dominated by Latinos, Hostos offers a number of programs geared to Latinos, not with the aim of encouraging or perpetuating their ghettoization, but to help prepare them to bring their uniqueness as Latinos to the workplace and academia.  The Latin American Writer’s Institution is one such program, holding workshops in creative writing, readings and conferences, publishing two bilingual literary reviews of Latino and Latin American literature, even publishing books under the imprint, The Latino Press.

Hostos is one of 22 members of the Hispanic Educational Telecommunications Systems network (HETS), a community of Hispanic post secondary schools with a program of a very different nature, one that promotes the sharing of knowledge amongst Hispanics through technology.  Credit courses, research, programs and more are shared amongst HETS members at colleges and universities in the US and Puerto Rico.

Hostos keeps up the tradition, since its founding, as an arts mecca with a full calendar of cultural events, now appealing to a more global audience.


Bluegrass Community and Technical College: Embracing the Change

As the demographic changes, throughout the country, but especially in the South, several schools are choosing to recruit and support Hispanics from the neighboring communities.  Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington, Kentucky opened its Office of Hispanic Outreach and Support in 2005 and received an achievement award in 2006 from Excelencia in Education, commending the program’s efforts to “create an atmosphere of acceptance and cultural celebration”.

Of a student body numbering 12,000, only 220 are currently Hispanics, but northern Kentucky is witnessing a rapid shift in demographics as the Hispanic population booms.  Under the aegis of the outreach and support office and its coordinator, Erin Howard, the school has been vigorous in embracing Latinos, monitoring race relations on campus to insure that issues of discrimination are addressed, running a College Experience Camp that simulates campus life for high school students while encouraging appreciation for bilingualism, and holding a college fair geared to recruiting Latinos to H.S.I.s throughout the nation, and offering high school workshops in the hopes of recruiting Latinos to B.C.T.C.   In the end, Ms. Howard explained, “My goal is not to increase B.C.T.C. Latino student recruitment, but to increase Latino student admissions to college all across the state.”   “We are making efforts to change policy,” she continued, “ to keep doors open for ALL students regardless of [immigration] status, and have a program for them that they have the freedom to directly become involved in and make decisions.”

Ms. Howard lamented that since Bluegrass College was not an Hispanic Serving Institution, funding was extremely low—her budget this year for programs is only $7000—adding, in the same vein, that financial pressures were of great concern to her students and one of her office’s most challenging obstacles.

Karla Ruiz is a nursing student at Bluegrass College and assistant to Erin Howard.  She has a bachelor’s degree in German, but returned to school, to B.C.T.C., attracted by the newly-launched Latino initiatives.  She is studying nursing, attending school full-time and working in a nearby hospital at night.  Ms. Ruiz plans to use her RN degree from Bluegrass College to do outreach to Hispanics in health care.  She spoke glowingly of the support of the administration for all programs promoting instruction for Latinos and attending to the needs of Latinos at her school.  The administration, she added, especially the school’s president, “facilitates both illegal and legal students, reaching out to allow everyone to get an education.”  Ms. Ruiz explained that several of her cohorts come from the population of migrant workers in the surrounding areas of truck farms, tobacco fields and horse parks.


Cal State at Fullerton: Success

California State University at Fullerton, in Orange County, is just 10 miles from Disneyland.  It is an Hispanic Serving Institution, with an enrollment of 36,000, 27% of whom are Hispanics and 33% non-Hispanic whites.  In 2006, according to Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education magazine, the school placed 4th in the nation and first among all California schools in awarding baccalaureate degrees to Hispanics.

Paula Sellek, Senior Communications Officer for Public Affairs, cites as another impressive marker of success, the university’s ranking 17th nationwide in enrollment of Hispanics in graduate programs.  Cal State Fullerton is also the #1 transfer institution in the state: more students transfer into Cal State Fullerton form 2-year colleges than any other school in the system.

Dr. Silas Abrego, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs, elaborated for the Hispanic-American Village on Cal State Fullerton’s successes, tying them to the school’s status as an H.S.I.  A strong booster, he said that successful outcomes, most notably graduation rates, depended on the kind of conducive environment for learning based on community offered by H.S.I.s.

Using Cal State Fullerton as a boiler plate, Dr. Abrego indicated a number of  essential ingredients in that sense of community.  Among them are: “a very engaging faculty in and outside the classroom—one that meets and consults, reviews assignments, is accessible to the students and doesn’t just give class time; a comprehensive set of academic support programs; social networks like peer mentoring and social clubs that help the students to navigate campus life.”  Dr, Abrego stressed, too, the role of close ties with the outside community.  “They [the growing Latino population around Cal State Fullerton] are a part of this institution,” he stressed.  “This is THEIR university,”

Dr. Abrego was a bit wary of non-H.S.I.s, including the highly sought after “elite” schools where Latino enrollment is meager.  He suggested that Hispanics who attend, already intellectually advanced, but who come from lower-income and unassimilated backgrounds, might feel alienated at such institutions.  They may well “feel lonely,” he posits.  “ [They] won’t know how to access services,” and would be faced with a very different teaching methodology and curriculum.


HACU, the Anchor, Weighs In

Echoing Dr. Abrego’s assessment of H.S.I.s is Dr. Antonio Flores, President and CEO of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.  HACU serves as the anchor for the Hispanic Serving Institutions–now numbering, depending on how H.S.I.s are defined, between 250 and 450–advocating for funding and for interventions in Latino education reaching back even to preschool.  Dr. Flores observed, via e-mail, “H.S.I.s offer a campus climate that reflects the Latino experience and support services that often are not available at other institutions.”  He added that the fact that H.S.I.s offer “more Latino role models in faculty and leadership positions,” also encouraged student success.


Related Sidebar

Q&A with Professor Rick Lopez
Further discussion on higher education with Amherst College professor Lopez, by carol Amoruso

From Amherst: Another Perspective

Rick López advocates stepping out of the comfort zone that Drs. Flores and Abrego find motivating.  When accepted to Amherst as an undergrad, this Texas kid who’d never even heard of the school until his ACT test scores were in, jumped at the opportunity to attend.  It was a perfect fit.  “I felt at home,” he recalled in an e-mail.  ‘It was exactly the kind of setting and intellectual challenge I was looking for.”

López is back at Amherst, having earned his masters and doctorate at Yale, a professor of history specializing in Mexico, Mexican-North American relations and Mexican-American culture.

Amherst College, in Massachusetts, is an elite institution with one of the highest academic reputations in the country.  Although Latino enrollment is only 6%, Hispanic Businessmagazine named Amherst third of 25 top post-secondary schools recommended for Latinos.  The college has a Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies and  extensive course offerings in Latin American and Latino-American history, literature, culture and language.

Reflecting on the Latino experience at elite schools, Professor López observes that it’s important, “particularly for working class students,” to maintain cultural ties, and he points to two student organizations at Amherst that do just that—the literary group, La Causa, and the Chicano Caucus.

Both Rick López and another of Amherst’s noted Hispanic intellectuals, Ilan Stavans, Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture, fault the school for not reaching out to more Hispanics and other minorities, more students of any background from poorer socio-economic backgrounds as well.  “Amherst has remained a place of class privilege,” says Rick López,, “and I would look forward to seeing Amherst bring in students who will break down these barriers.”


In the Final Analysis

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Of course, there’s no way to determine which course of study will, in the long run, ensure that Latinos successfully pursue higher education in the same proportion as their non-Hispanic white counterparts.  In the end, each student must choose what for him or her is, as Professor López suggested, the “best fit.”  What is clear, however, is that there is an uphill struggle to be engaged and both Hispanic serving and other institutions need to assure Latinos positive, progressive curriculum, programs and outreach in a supportive environment.


Other Readings of Interest



Carol Amoruso has had several vocational callings over the years. She’s taught young children, run volunteer programs for seniors, had a catering business, designed clothes. Ultimately, she found that nothing engaged and challenged her the way writing has. She’s written every day since childhood, professionally since 1990. Her involvement in the arts, society and politics of Africa, the Caribbean, and the Latin World have been the most inspiring and her work concentrates on those areas. She travels extensively but lives in New York City.

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