The rapidly expanding ranks of Hispanic-Serving Institutions

The number of U.S. colleges and universities that qualify as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI)–a college where at least 25 percent of full-time equivalent undergraduates identify as Latinx–has increased rapidly in recent years. As more and more institutions become HSIs, both intentionally and unintentionally, colleges and universities could face greater competition for a limited pot of federal dollars—and more intense scrutiny of their dedication to supporting Latinx students, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

In 2019, 569 of the nation’s nonprofit colleges had met the enrollment threshold for HSI status, and another 362 were on the brink, according to the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU). Just one year earlier, the nation had 539 HSIs. Projections indicate that 25 percent of nonprofit colleges could soon have enrollments that meet the HSI threshold. Whereas HSIs were once overwhelmingly small community colleges, demographic shifts—and the funding available to HSIs—has drawn interest from a growing number of larger, four-year institutions.

Greater competition for limited funds

The federal HSI designation enables colleges to compete for grants from the U.S. Department of Education, provided that the institution spends less per student than its peers, enrolls a high percentage of low-income students, or receives a waiver for those requirements.

However, colleges that become HSIs and secure related grants are not technically required to demonstrate that they are serving Latinx students, and some higher education experts have voiced concern that institutions are chasing HSI funds as a new revenue source without specific plans targeting their Latinx population.

Many HSIs aren’t “showing intentionality,” Deborah A. Santiago, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Excelencia in Education, told the Chronicle. “The question is do they know who they’re serving?” she asked. For instance, “Do they know that Latinos are more loan averse?”

You have to be committed to long-term systemic service, not just the sugar high of some initiative,” Heather A. Wilson, president of the University of Texas at El Paso, added.

Unlike historically Black colleges and universities and tribal colleges–”closed memberships” that do not flex based on enrollment demographics—HSIs are finding that their proliferation is leading to smaller funding disbursements.

According to The Chronicle, the total federal funding available for HSIs in 2019 amounted to $87 per Latinx student enrolled, compared with $1,642 for every Black student enrolled at a historically Black college or university. Competition for those dollars is likely to intensify, especially as large research universities “sort of plow over the institutions that initially needed the funding,” said Gina Ann Garcia, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Pittsburgh.

Related: New initiative to help HSIs better support working, adult Latinx students >

HACU President Antonio R. Flores told the Chronicle that he hopes federal officials will direct significantly more funding to HSIs. In the meantime, however, he is less concerned about the narrative that institutions are using HSI funds for general needs, given that most HSIs have student bodies where at least half of students identify as Hispanic and would benefit from institutional improvements.

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