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HSIs Coming to Terms with Identity, Mission

Dr. Estela Mara Bensimon said, “The people who work in Hispanic Serving Institutions really don’t understand how they became Hispanic-serving.”Dr. Estela Mara Bensimon said, “The people who work in Hispanic Serving Institutions really don’t understand how they became Hispanic-serving.”

WASHINGTON — As the nation continues to see a rise in the Hispanic population, higher education institutions are looking to identify ways to better serve the students of this population.

But unlike with Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) were not historically designated as such and do not often state in their missions a commitment to serving Hispanic students. Outside of a mention of Title V grant eligibility—the federal program that funds Hispanic Serving Institutions—there is little to no acknowledgement of the status by many of the institutions. Most don’t even know what it means to be a Hispanic Serving Institution, making it inherently difficult to serve the students, leaders said at the Accelerating Latino Student Success workshop.

“None of us asked to be Hispanic Serving Institutions; none of us were created to be Hispanic Serving Institutions,” said Dr. Eloy Ortiz Oakley, superintendent-president of Long Beach City College in California.

“The people who work in Hispanic Serving Institutions really don’t understand how they became Hispanic-serving,” said Dr. Estela Mara Bensimon, a professor of Higher Education at the USC Rossier School of Education. “They don’t understand the immigration practices and who are the Hispanic students that they are serving.”

“The fact is that many Hispanic Serving Institutions were once proudly Predominantly White Institutions,” Bensimon continued.

So the challenge for these institutions is figuring out how to “be intentional, be explicit and be uncompromising” in their commitment to serving students who look different than those who enrolled decades ago, said Oakley.

“We have to be very specific about what that means, and the reality is that we haven’t been doing too well,” he said. “Even those of us who have been at this for a long time and have been thinking about these issues are having a difficult time closing the gaps in the ways we would like to see them close.”

Paramount to this, Bensimon and Oakley agreed, is understanding the backgrounds of the students at the institutions and setting reasonable expectations and benchmarks.

“We are not going to solve this problem continuing to focus on [comparing these institutions to] the Ivy League system,” said Oakley.

For one thing, many minority serving institutions serve “more Pell [grant eligible] students than the entire Ivy League system combined,” he said. With the historic wealth and opportunity disadvantage in mind, Oakley said leaders at HSIs “need to get 10 Latino students enrolled … for every one we get into Harvard” to begin to close the gap.

The implementation of programs on the margins of the university—“the trailer at the end of the university that serves mothers on welfare or the financial aid office with the dirty carpet and the long lines”—also will not work. Instead, said Dr. Sara Lundquist, vice president of student services at Santa Ana College, these types of efforts “excuse the institution so it doesn’t have to make larger institutional changes.”

It is these transformative institutional changes that are key to the success of Hispanic students—and students from other minority populations. But achieving such broad-sweeping change can be difficult for college leadership.

“We teach our students to go out and take risks, but our institutions are risk averse,” Oakley said, adding that it is the tendency of institutional leaders to “go and blame everybody” for the students’ inability to succeed without examining the institutional culture.

“Transformative change means a loss of identity for some who have been at the institution for a long time,” said Bensimon, who added that administrators often “come up with all types of rationalizations that tend to place all of the responsibility on those students and their families and their [K-12] schools, [but] we have to challenge our faculty to ask why” certain subsets of students are struggling to succeed.

This means examining departmental hiring practices, examining trends in course failures and identifying solutions and built-in remediation and looking at influencing factors that exist outside the classroom.

“We really have to talk about education not just from the perspective of getting a high school diploma, getting a college credential … but we really have to create a culture around being an engaged citizen” and being able to earn a meaningful wage-paying job upon graduation, said Oakley.

“If we want to change our institutions, we have to learn how to walk in our students’ shoes in all of those places where Latino student success” comes into question, Bensimon continued.

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