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Enrolling vs. Serving Latino Students

The Obama administration has articulated a goal to return to the top of the international rankings for degree completion by 2020. Due to Latinos’ youth and projected growth, the U.S. cannot reach its goals for international rankings without a tactical plan that includes Latino students. To reach this goal, higher education will have to do more than just offer access to Latino students — it will have to serve Latino students in much more effective ways than in the past.

It is important to make a distinction between enrolling and serving Latino students in policy conversations about Latino student success. While many policymakers would like to assume enrolling and serving are equivalent, they are not. Enrollment is a prerequisite for serving students, just as serving students is a prerequisite for success (degree completion). Enrollment is about access, while serving students is about retention and completion.

Serving Latino students goes beyond enrolling them. It is generally assumed that the growth and concentration of Latino students at an institution will trigger efforts by the institution to adapt its practices to better serve the Latino students enrolled, and that alone makes these institutions Hispanic “serving.” In fact, the federal definition of a Hispanic-serving institution (HSI) is predicated on the concentrated enrollment of Latino students, rather than on a specific mission to serve these students (as with historically Black colleges and universities and tribal colleges and universities for their respective populations).


Federal legislation defines HSIs as degree-granting, nonprofit institutions of higher education with 25 percent or more undergraduate full-time equivalent Hispanic enrollment. However, it is a poorly kept secret that there are institutions of higher education that meet the enrollment criteria to be identified as an HSI but whose leaders cannot articulate what it means to “serve” Latino students. Conversely, there are also institutions that do not meet the enrollment criteria to be an HSI but are leading effective efforts to serve Latino students. If a concentrated enrollment of Latino students does not explicitly mean an institution is serving Latino students, then what does it mean to serve Latino students?


Serving Latino students is about intentionality. It means knowing the profile of the Latino population at your institution and in your community. It means knowing the performance of your Latino students and identifying their strengths and needs. It means considering adaptations to curricular design, academic, and support services to increase retention or promote persistence for your Latino students. Serving Latino students means graduating your Latino students. Serving Latino students does not mean institutions serve them at the expense of other students. This is not an either/or proposition. Rather, institutions can build on what works in serving Latino students to better serve other students as well.


Why focus on Latino students at all? For too long, the strengths and needs, persistence and performance of Latino students have been neglected in higher education. Too few leaders, policymakers, researchers, and faculty know the condition of Latinos in higher education and what can be done to increase Latino degree completion. It is too easy for an institution to claim it is “serving” all students who enroll when there is little awareness of the retention and completion rates of all students disaggregated by race/ethnicity. Are Latino students doing better, the same as, or worse than other students in retention and completion? Answering this question will be a good indicator of an institution’s ability to serve Latino students.


At Excelencia in Education, we have made a commitment to understand what it means to serve Latino students in higher education today. We have also made a concerted effort to recognize, catalog and celebrate what works at institutions of higher education serving Latino students in our work, such as our Examples of Excelencia activities, Growing What Works initiative and our series of issue briefs on HSIs. In this work, we have found promising practices across the country — from California and Texas to Connecticut and Georgia — and at HSIs as well as non-HSIs alike that are serving Latino students well. However, many of these promising practices are serving a small number of Latino students. More of these institutional efforts need to be shared, replicated and brought to scale in much larger numbers so that the U.S. can meet its degree completion goals.


As higher education changes and the Latino population continues to grow, will higher education evolve to serve this critical mass of students to improve our country’s overall degree completion? I will explore this and other critical issues in higher education for Latinos in a new blog for Diverse: Issues In Higher Education entitled: “Finding Excelencia.”


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