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Report Highlights Growing Recognition of Nontraditional Students at Hispanic-Serving Institutions

Treating nontraditional students as an asset rather than as a liability has marked stellar leadership among presidents at Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), according to “Leading in Changing America: Presidential Perspectives from Hispanic-Serving Institutions,” a report released this week by the advocacy group Excelencia in Education.

“Leadership is a critical component of serving students, specifically Latino students, so we just wanted to talk to college presidents about what students need,” said Dr. Deborah Santiago, the author of the report and vice president for policy and research at Excelencia in Education.

The report describes nontraditional students as significantly “low-income, first-generation, part-time, commuting, ethnically diverse and older” students, while describing traditional collegians as full-time students who are usually White and financially dependent on parents.

Data collected in the report indicates that, from 1980 to 2007, nontraditional student representation increased 194 percent, while traditional student representation increased only 18 percent at HSIs. The data also indicated that Hispanics represent the largest group of minority students with the sharpest increase of college enrollment.

Comments from 12 HSI presidents whose institutions were featured in the report indicates the value of treating nontraditional students as an asset, an approach, Santiago explained, that stands in sharp contrast to some college leaders who see nontraditional students lowering the quality and prestige of their institutions as well as costing more to educate.


“We find that leaders of institutions who have that (negative) perspective are not effective leaders and the institutions generally do not have a good success rate with nontraditional students,” Santiago said.

Santiago said institutions that view their nontraditional students as an asset are more likely to offer evening courses and such important services as academic advising on weekends. She also cited a joint application process initiative pairing El Paso Community College and the University of Texas–El Paso as an example of an innovative service that many HSIs are providing their nontraditional students. The initiative targets first-generation and low-income students who may be interested in attending both institutions.

Among those leading resource-limited institutions, HSIs leaders were also recognized in the report for finding innovative ways to seek external funds from private sectors and other sources.

“It’s an attempt to describe what these presidents do, how we struggle to receive funding in order to provide these services,” said Dr. Ricardo Fernández, president of City University of New York-Lehman College, one of the 12 HSIs highlighted in the report.

According to the Lehman College fall 2008 data book, about 51 percent of the school’s  undergraduates were Hispanic; the graduate student population was 30 percent Hispanic.  Fernández said Lehman College has strong student support and outreach programs, which enables the school to maintain ties to local middle and high schools. Lehman College  also participates in the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) and has received grant funding that has enabled the school to help distribute more than 6,000 laptops to Bronx students, most of whom were middle schoolers, according to Fernandez.

The highlighted leaders were also credited with trying new educational methods in addition to traditional approaches. The Excelencia report was the fourth in a series about HSIs. Based in Washington, D.C., Excelencia is a nonprofit organization that advocates for improved opportunities for Hispanics in U.S. higher education.

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