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Reaching Out to Hispanic Students May Be Key for Some Colleges’ Survival


Notre Dame de Namur’s comprehensive enrollment campaign included becoming a Hispanic-serving institution.Notre Dame de Namur’s comprehensive enrollment campaign included becoming a Hispanic-serving institution.

When Notre Dame de Namur, a 162-year-old Catholic college located in the San Francisco Bay area, began the 2007-08 school year, the college faced a crisis of declining enrollment. Notre Dame de Namur’s enrollment had peaked at 1,700 in 2003, but, four years later, student enrollment plummeted to 1,300, the lowest in recent history.

College officials took steps to address the problem. They adopted a strategic plan that included a comprehensive enrollment campaign. The plan also included a piece deemed important to the survival of the college—becoming a Hispanic-serving institution.

HSIs are two- or four-year nonprofit degree granting institutions that have an enrollment of at least 25 percent Hispanic.

Notre Dame de Namur’s Hispanic enrollment hovered around 17 percent in 2007. Today, Hispanic enrollment is 29 percent, according to a college spokesman. And that’s not all that’s grown. The college’s enrollment rose to slightly more than 2,000 in the fall of 2012.

“We have grown about 35 percent in the last five years,” says Hernan Bucheli, the college’s vice president for external affairs. “We’ve been growing pretty consistently and, for our scale, pretty significantly. The Hispanic serving strategy has played a big role in that.”

College officials and higher education experts say reaching out to Hispanic students is critical to the future of the college.

“Higher education is changing, and demographics are changing,” says Dr. Judith Greig, president of Notre Dame de Namur. “The ground is just shifting. I think institutions that don’t have some kind of edge or some kind of niche are not going to survive these changes, particularly institutions that aren’t wealthy. Those of us who are not sitting with huge endowments will have to figure out another way to make it through.”

Notre Dame de Namur has worked aggressively to make the campus environment welcoming to Hispanic students. It has expanded its student success center and tutorial program. Faculty members developed an early warning system to make sure administrators are alerted and can intervene when a student stops coming to class or appears to be struggling academically. At student orientation, the literature is in both English and Spanish, and college officials ensure translators are on hand to interpret for parents if necessary.

According to Bucheli, the college strives to keep the parents of Hispanic students abreast of what’s going on. Staff members have created a video in Spanish so parents can be aware of various services, and they send out a newsletter in Spanish and English.

“Some parents may not want their students to go to college because they want them to work,” says Bucheli. “So sometimes we do value messaging about the value of a college education and how it’s a long-term investment that will eventually pay off.”

Higher education experts say Notre Dame de Namur’s outreach to Hispanic students is the kind of path many will need to follow if they are to thrive or even survive. Hispanics are the nation’s largest minority group and one of the fastest growing. On average, they are also younger than the general population. Experts say colleges that fail to market aggressively to this rapidly growing population may be doing so at their own peril.

“Most colleges and universities in this country will be Hispanic-serving by 2050,” says Dr. Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and a noted scholar on minority-serving institutions. “If you’re going to be pragmatic and are thinking about the future, you need to learn how to recruit and retain Latino students. If they’re not reaching out to Latinos, they will suffer in terms of enrollment.”

Unlike historically Black colleges and tribal colleges, which were founded to serve specific ethnic groups, Hispanic-serving institutions are relatively new and did not start out with a mission to educate Latinos. Colleges first received the designation in 1994, according to Deborah Santiago, chief operating officer and director of research for Excelencia in Education, an organization that strives to improve higher education success for Latinos.

HSIs have been growing rapidly in the last 20 years, mirroring the nation’s changing demographics. In 1995, Santiago says, 135 colleges and universities met the enrollment definition of HSIs. Between the 2010-11 and 2011-12 academic years, the number rose by 45 schools. At the end of the 2011-12 school year, the number had risen to 356. HSIs are located in 16 states, and more than half of them are in three places, explains Santiago: California, Texas and Puerto Rico. Together, they educate 54 percent of Hispanic undergraduates.

“Forty-seven percent are community colleges,” says Santiago. “If you include private two-year colleges, it is 52 percent.”

She adds that 650 colleges have a student body that is at least 15 percent Hispanic.

Receiving the designation of a Hispanic-serving institution offers several benefits for the college, Santiago says. First, it helps the college market to service its area better. Second, by better serving their constituencies, colleges are able to sustain themselves as an institution and perhaps even grow. Third, the designation makes the colleges eligible to compete for several grants from the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

One of the best known of these funding sources is the Title V Grant.

One part of the Title V Grant supports undergraduate education while another supports increases in graduate opportunities for students, says John Moder, vice president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities and former president of St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. He says some of these grants promote STEM education and relationships between two- and four year-institutions, which promote transfer opportunities. He adds that the Department of Agriculture has a broad grant program targeted at HSIs that is directed at areas like food science and nutrition.

Notre Dame de Namur reached the 25 percent threshold of enrolled Hispanic students in 2009. In 2011, the college received two grants totaling $6.1 million from the federal government, according to Bucheli. He says the money has, among other things, been used to add more tutors and student success coaches, as well as purchase lab computers and other items that help boost student achievement.

But college administration and higher education experts say becoming an HSI is sometimes fraught with challenges—many of them perception driven.

“For some institutions, there can be an issue with alumni who are used to thinking about a college the way it was when they were there,” says Moder.

Greig says she’s had parents and board members ask questions about the implications of being an HSI for non-Hispanics.

“The one question I’ve gotten from a couple of board members is, ‘Does being an HSI mean it is exclusive to Latinos?’” explains Greig. “And I say ‘No, it means we are open to all.’ We see being an HSI as reflecting our broad diversity.”

She adds that parents have also asked, “‘Are my kids going to be comfortable here?’”

Overall, says Greig, the college community has been supportive of the college’s decision to seek HSI status. She says that became clear to her when the college tried to raise $1 million in matching funds as required by one of the grants. The condition laid down by the government required that the grant be raised in five years.

“We virtually met the goal in the first 16 months,” she says. “To have our constituency respond so positively was a marker for me.”

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