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The HIspanic-Serving Designation: Asset or Deficit?

The Hispanic-Serving Designation: Asset or Deficit?

By Kerri Allen

There are more than 200 American colleges and universities federally designated as Hispanic-Serving Institutions, but only four mention this classification in their mission statements, says Dr. Victor B. Saenz. The education researcher, who examines the college student experience, noted the inconsistency at a recent higher education forum, saying that diversity and excellence in higher education are not mutually exclusive. The challenge is getting increasingly diverse institutions to welcome the new opportunities diversity offers.

“Let’s think of HSI-standing as an asset, not a deficit,” says Saenz, who oversees two national survey projects at the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. “For those that are facing this new idea of being Hispanic-serving, step one is acknowledging that this is a new identity that the institution can embrace.” Saenz spoke of the HSI designation before an assembly of about 60 educators, researchers and advocates at last month’s Higher Education Research Collective in Princeton, N.J.

The meeting, titled “Setting the Research Agenda for Hispanic Success in Higher Education,” was hosted by the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities and addressed obstacles to success for Hispanic students. It was the last of three regional discussions organized by HACU, following meetings earlier this summer in California and Texas.
The lack of minority faculty to teach on increasingly diverse campuses emerged as one of the major areas of discussion during the daylong event. Another theme was the academic politics surrounding a college or university’s status as a Hispanic-Serving Institution.

The U.S. Department of Education classifies an HSI as a non-profit institution that has at least a 25 percent Hispanic, full-time equivalent enrollment. At least half of the Hispanic student population must also be low income as defined as 150 percent of the poverty level as defined by the Census Bureau. This is also known as Title V status. In 2006, the Education Department earmarked nearly $95 million for 173 HSIs.  According to the Institution Development and Undergraduate Education Service in Washington, 31 new HSIs were funded in 2004; 46 in 2005; and 36 in 2006.

Northeastern Illinois University, a public four-year institution with roughly 29 percent Hispanic undergraduate enrollment, received funds to “create a comprehensive faculty development center that focuses on improving general education courses and to help with the retention and six-year graduation rate of our students,” says Dr. Santos Rivera, senior executive director of the Office of Affirmative Action and Institutional Outreach Initiatives at NEIU.

“Taking into consideration that today’s students are very different from those in previous generations, the need for faculty to teach students with different learning styles is vital,” he says.

However, Saenz says the presidents of many emerging HSIs do not know how to launch an effective diversity effort. Little research is available to guide them, with one rare resource being the American Council on Education’s publication, Leadership Strategies for Advancing Campus Diversity: Advice from Experienced Presidents, which documented the success of 30 such college and university presidents.

Dr. John Moder, chief operating officer of HACU, says new HSIs have the opportunity to advance minority student outcomes that other schools won’t address.

“An institution of the verge of becoming a Hispanic-Serving
Institution, based on enrollment, is looking now at a stronger
research base for that process, presumably both in terms of guiding their own policy decisions in best educating a growing Hispanic student population and in terms of the research value of tracking and evaluating the impact of their efforts on student retention, satisfaction and graduation.”

A significant part of retention is having excellent minority faculty as role models. “If we want to improve the outcome of Hispanics in higher education, we must back up and look at the teachers,” says Dr. Ana Maria Villegas, a Montclair State University curriculum and teaching professor. She says Hispanic professors and faculty have the potential to improve the academic outcomes of Hispanic students and shrink the achievement gap.

“Teacher education is part of higher education,” Villegas says. And Saenz added that minority faculty can fundamentally change the culture of the institution, since “many are more often inclined to use pedagogical techniques of inclusion, integration and reflection, which can attract more students of color.”

Villegas reported that in the past 24 years, the number of Hispanic students in public elementary and secondary schools increased 54 percent, while the number of Hispanic teachers increased only 1.4 percent. “This is a problem,” Villegas said, “because Hispanic students need Hispanic role models.”

To set the research agenda of the future, HACU is relying on attendee evaluations from each presentation in all three cities, which will be analyzed to chart a course towards greater success.

“No one had tried to capture, in a global way, the state of
Hispanic education research,” Moder says. “We hope that developing a shared agenda will support researchers in focusing on the most urgent questions, the ones whose answers can make the biggest difference.”

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