Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) are accredited 2- and 4-year not-for-profit colleges and universities with at least 25% Hispanic enrollment. The HSI designation also requires that a minimum of 50% of a school’s Hispanic students are eligible for need-based aid.
Unlike historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) and women’s colleges, HSIs do not have a declared mission of serving a specific population. Instead, HSI is a formal designation that arose through grassroots efforts advocating for the needs of Latino students. Most schools become HSIs as a result of enrollment shifts over time.
Institutions that receive HSI designation are eligible to compete for funding under the Department of Education’s Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions program. Eligibility is predicated on enrollment, which means the precise number of HSIs changes annually. In the 2019-2020 school year, 30 new institutions received HSI designation, bringing the current total to 569 HSIs across 28 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. A large majority of these institutions are located in California, Florida, Illinois, New Mexico, New York, Texas, and Puerto Rico. Nearly 70% of all Latino students in higher education in the U.S. attend an HSI.
» Read: Compare the best Hispanic-serving institutions
An additional 362 institutions are currently designated as emerging HSIs, meaning they are approaching the 25% Hispanic and Latino enrollment threshold. The combined population of all HSIs is 46% Hispanic and Latino. Seventy-five HSIs are also Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institutions (AANAPISIs).
Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU)
The Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) was established in 1986. HACU’s formal mission is “to champion Hispanic success in higher education”. Its main lines of activity are:
- improving access to quality post-secondary education for Hispanic students and building the institutional capacity of HSIs
- advocating for government support and improved legislation for HSIs
- sharing expertise and information with industry and government and promoting strategic alliances, including international academic cooperation (approximately 45 Latin American and Spanish universities are HACU members)
Following a series of congressional hearings on Hispanic and Latino access to higher education, the HIS designation was created in 1992. At the time, 2 main issues were identified:
- lack of access to higher education and low graduation rates among Latino and Hispanic communities
- high concentrations of Hispanic and Latino students at underfunded institutions
Channeling federal resources to HSIs was thus the main motive behind the designation. In 1995, HSIs were granted federal funding for the first time ever – a total of $12 million. Although much effort has been made towards achieving HACU’s initial objectives, the issues identified in 1992 remain relevant.
HSI funding inequalities
HSIs define “Hispanic” as Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or other Spanish culture or origin. Hispanics are the largest, youngest, and second fastest-growing ethnic population in the U.S., making up 18.4% of the U.S. population in 2019.
HSIs enroll two-thirds of all Latino undergraduates. In contrast, HBCUs enroll about 10% of all Black students. Despite enrolling a significant proportion of Latino students, HSIs receive only 68 cents for every federal dollar going to all other colleges and universities annually. Given that the majority of HSIs are community colleges, part of the issue is the significant revenue gap between funding for community colleges versus 4-year colleges.
Federal funding for HSIs grew between 1998 and 2004, but Congress has since failed to keep up with rapidly growing enrollment numbers. Funding has declined or risen only slightly each year since the economic recession of 2009 and 2010, despite the fact that there has been an average of 29 new HSIs every year since 2013. Approximately 17% of all U.S. nonprofit colleges and universities are HSIs. Thus, underfunding is a serious concern affecting large swathes of the U.S. population.
There are significant inequalities between Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), which includes HSIs and HBCUs, and predominantly white institutions. There are also disparities among MSIs. In 2019, the total funding available for HSIs amounted to $87 per targeted student, compared with $1,642 per Black student at HBCUs. Predominately Black institutions (PBIs) that are not designated HBCUs receive only slightly more than HSIs – $115 per student.
Causes of funding inequalities
Issues with funding partially come down to the different ways MSIs secure federal funds. HBCUs and tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) are funded based on a formula, which results in all eligible colleges receiving funds. HSIs receive funding if they are chosen in competitive award programs. This means losing colleges don’t receive funding, but it also means winning colleges receive more than the overall figure of $87 per student.
There are 3 competitive award programs through which HSIs seek funding from the U.S. Department of Education (USDA):
- Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program
- HSI Science Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics (STEM) and Articulation Program
- Promoting Postbaccalaureate Opportunities for Hispanic Americans Program
Of the 3, only the STEM program has guaranteed funding. The budget for the other 2 depends on what Congress allocates each year. HSIs depend on government support more than most institutions because raising tuition fees and endowment revenue are not feasible given the low-income students they serve. Their dependence on state and federal resources thus makes them particularly vulnerable to continual funding declines.
Another issue is that no formal list of HSIs exists at the federal level. This results in far less research and data being available, ultimately affecting funding decisions. Additionally, the formulation of a federal-level definition of HSIs only happened in 2008, as part of the Higher Education Opportunity Act, Title V. HBCUs were first defined in 1965, giving them a significant head start in terms of securing funding and beneficial policies.
Enrolling versus serving
The differences between a designation based on an enrollment threshold compared to one rooted in history and identity can be seen in HSIs and HBCUs, respectively. While the origins of these differences are the result of how the institutions came about, they can affect student experiences in tangible ways and therefore have become a topic of interest.
Research has shown that Black Americans who attended HBCUs have better health and economic outcomes long after graduation compared to Black students at predominantly white institutions. In the context of HSIs, there is discussion around the difference between merely enrolling a large percentage of Hispanic students, and serving that population. The concept of “servingness” has been identified by scholars Gina A. Garcia, Anne-Marie Núñez, and Vanessa A. Sansone in relation to this distinction.
HBCUs emerged following the abolition of slavery, out of the African American community’s need for healing and social advancement. They continue to be mission-driven institutions that offer a safe harbor for their students. While the designation of HSI was sought to improve educational attainment of Hispanic Americans, nonacademic outcomes haven’t often been considered by researchers and practitioners. Yet nonacademic outcomes such as leadership identity, critical consciousness, graduate school aspirations, and civic engagement are an important indicator of a school’s “servingness”.
Additionally, the language used in grant applications or in implementing programs is frequently race-neutral. This can mask racial inequalities related to student experiences and outcomes. Many students have extremely positive experiences at HSIs, but research shows that some continue to experience racialized incidents such as discrimination and harassment.
The successes of HSIs
HSIs can cite many achievements in their 26-year history. They are a major contributor to upward economic mobility for Latinos. In fact, 9 of the top 10 colleges and universities ranked by the Social Mobility Index (SMI) in 2020 were HSIs. The SMI measures the extent to which an academic institution educates economically disadvantaged students.
Arturo Gomez Molina is a marketing and communications coordinator at Keck Graduate Institute in the Los Angeles Metropolitan area. He completed his bachelor’s degree at University of La Verne, an HSI in Southern California. Melina writes: “I had a friend who graduated from the communications program at ULV and she told me about the job hunting success a lot of graduates had gained from the television, radio, and journalism programs. I didn’t specifically plan to attend a Hispanic-serving institution, but the University of La Verne’s diverse student body and faculty made me feel right at home. I was initially afraid that I wouldn’t see many students like myself, but I was excited to see student leadership, clubs, and events serving to my own cultural background. Through the ULV Multicultural Center, I met a lot of students and faculty who helped me discover a love and wonder for my own heritage and roots and I don’t think I could’ve found that anywhere else.”
As part of efforts to improve the quality of higher education for Latinos, the nonprofit organization Excelencia in Education has developed an online, searchable database called Growing What Works. It’s focused on higher education programs, at HSIs and elsewhere, that have evidence-based practices for accelerating Latino students’ success. The following are examples from the database connected to the concept of servingness at HSIs:
The Center for Community Engagement, University of Texas at El Paso
The center’s mission is promoting civic engagement of students and faculty. Students participate in community-based internships and service learning projects. Research of outcomes for students points to improved self-confidence, leadership skills, and commitment to social change.
DirectConnect is a partnership between the University of Central Florida, Valencia College, Brevard State College, Lake-Sumter State College, and Seminole State College. Its aim is to increase successful transfers and degree completion for Latino students in the community. Participating students from the 4 Central Florida colleges receive preferential admission to UCF. They also share advising across campuses and have access to courses that can easily be transferred to UCF. There has been an increase in the number of Latino students transferring to UCF as a result of the program.
CUNY Lehman College Multilingual Journalism and Mass Communication Program
This program is aimed at training future multilingual and multicultural journalists. Students can take courses in ethnic media and marketing as well as English-Spanish bilingual courses in journalistic writing. Graduates are working in major media companies, thus having far-reaching influence.
HSIs are the fastest-growing U.S. education sector and represent the largest share of minority serving institutions. Additionally, the Latino population is projected to represent 31% of the total U.S. population by 2060. Since HSI is an enrollment-based designation, there is little doubt that the numbers of HSIs will continue to grow. In light of these facts, an American Council on Education report has made the recommendation that HSIs “should be at the center of future legislative agendas and political debates about funds allocated to postsecondary education.”
HSIs are exemplary institutions for educating and graduating a diverse student body. Many are transforming in efforts to better serve their Latino students. Further intentionality on the part of institutions and adequate support from the federal government are essential to this continued mission.
Authors’ note: This article uses the term “Hispanic” in reference to the designation of Hispanic-serving institution (HSI). Elsewhere, the term “Latino” is used. Data referenced in this article does not differentiate between Hispanic and Latino individuals. We have refrained from using the term “Latinx” as data indicates that only 3% of U.S. Latinos use the term.