As the Hispanic population in America has grown, so, too has the number of Hispanic-Serving Institutions, from under 200 in 1994-95 to 571 in 2020-21. However, the amount of Title V funding—federal dollars granted to expand opportunities for Hispanic students—has not kept pace, resulting in increased competition for the money. It’s growing increasingly hard for HSIs to get funding this often-transformative funding: only 40% of eligible HSIs received Title V dollars in 2020. In a new briefing, Excelencia in Education, a Latino student success organization, isolates the challenges that HSIs are experiencing and the strategies that they are using to get this critical money.
One of the main obstacles that schools have in applying for Title V grants is decentralized structures for doing so, the briefing found. Without dedicated offices for these efforts, it becomes very hard to get all of the necessary people working together to write a successful grant.
According to Dr. Stephanie Aguilar-Smith, an assistant professor at the University of North Texas who studies grant-seeking by HSIs, the reason schools have this problem is simple: money.
“It’s expensive,” she said. “You have to have the money from the get-go to build this office, to staff this office, the get professional training about grant-writing, management, and implementation.”
Without a centralized office or personnel dedicated to HSI initiatives, schools must plan carefully, according to Dr. Deborah A. Santiago, co-founder and CEO of Excelencia. Institutional research teams must be brought into the process early in order to integrate data in proposals, she noted.
“We’re seeing more of that” among the schools that Excelencia profiled for the brief, Santiago said.
Another challenge is institutionalizing initiatives: sustaining them long-term after the grant money has run out. According to Aguilar-Smith, it’s important for cash-strapped institutions to think creatively about how positions can be folded into institutional budgets and to look for additional, non-Title V grant funding.
It’s also critical, she argued, to make sure that every part of an institution that will be affected understands the value of the project.
“In the process of developing a grant, if there isn’t buy-in across campus, it can look like you’re just chasing after money in ways that don’t always align with institutional needs,” said Aguilar-Smith.
Getting this buy-in is often a matter of fully explaining the effect that it is having on students.
“Sometimes, it’s really about how to tell the story,” she said.
The third main challenge that the briefing identified is for schools to develop an institution-wide identity as an HSI.
“I am confident that there are students that are at these institutions that don’t know they’re at an HSI,” said Santiago.
Santiago and Aguilar-Smith agreed that the issue stems from the definition of an HSI. Unlike HBCUs, which were created to serve Black students, or tribal colleges, which were created to serve Native Americans, HSIs were not created specifically to serve Hispanic students. Rather, HSI is a designation that applies to any school that enrolls 25% Hispanic students. Many HSIs were traditionally white schools that became HSIs as enrollment evolved, so serving Hispanic students might not be as core to their identity.
Santiago argued that HSIs should endeavor to hire faculty that look like the students they teach.
“You can have identity as an HSI in your C-suite, but if it doesn’t permeate to faculty and students, then it doesn’t resonate, it doesn’t sustain,” she said.
Aguilar-Smith said that it was important for HSIs to feature the designation in their strategic plan, mission statement, and prominently on their website.
“It’s different,” she said, “if you have to hit three tabs to get there.”
“When they talk about what they do, and they embrace the term, that shows that there is some identity, some intentionality,” she said.
The brief also offers policy suggestions to improve the grant program. One is to provide guaranteed funding to all HSIs that meet the eligibility criteria for grants to help them submit competitive applications.
Aguilar-Smith called the idea “fantastic,” but said that she wasn’t sure that it was politically feasible at present. However, Excelencia is planning to pilot planning grants in the near future, convening institutions and helping them build grant-writing infrastructure.
“We’re using our own resources to do it because we think it can inform Title V,” said Santiago.
Another idea is to require that schools that had gotten Title V grants show whether the activities were sustained long-term. This would help to prevent schools from re-applying for additional aid for programs instead of institutionalizing them.
Aguilar-Smith appreciated the spirit of proposal but expressed concern.
What happens if an institution genuinely doesn’t have the financial capital to sustain it?” she said. “I wonder how that might come to harm institutions that are doing good work.”
Lastly, the briefing recommends that the 16 allowable activities for grants be refocused and limited to only those that are most closely tied to Latino student success.
“It’s made it challenging to know what’s impactful,” said Santiago.
She suggested narrowing down the allowable activities to the 8-10 that most schools are doing anyway, such as faculty and curricular development and student support services.
Aguilar-Smith was less certain.
“Which ones are really important depends on the institution,” she said. “One of the benefits of having it be broad is that there’s a lot of freedom to speak to different institutions’ needs.”
Overall, however, Aguilar-Smith thought that the report had the potential to direct attention to a source of funding that is increasingly hard to get.
“I hope people recognize that Title V is important to invest in because it allows institutions to do things that they might not have the resources otherwise to do,” she said. “We’ve created a competition for resource-limited institutions to fight for money, and they don’t have the resources to begin with.”
Jon Edelman can be reached at JEdelman@DiverseEducation.com