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Raising awareness about Hispanic-Serving Institutions for Latinx students and families

Introduction by: Lisa Pamela Lopez-Escobar and Sophia Rodriguez University of Maryland, College Park

Guest Blogger: Gabriela Flores, PhD Student, University of California, Merced

October 11, 2023

In this week’s blog, PhD Student Gabriela Flores from the University of California, Merced shares insight from her current longitudinal research with Latinx college students attending Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) and their parents. Gabriela’s work calls attention to the need to raise awareness about HSIs' goals and common misconceptions families have about HSIs. She demonstrates that simply having the designation of HSI is not enough to mitigate the educational inequalities Latinx youth face. Gabriela provides recommendations colleges and universities can take to begin to raise awareness and more effectively engage Latinx students and families. We would also encourage HSIs to consider barriers within Latinx communities related to immigration status and or additional financial limitations, so raising awareness about sanctuary spaces on campuses and accessing resources to attend college are critical for these communities. Institutions play a significant role in supporting Latinx families to access resources and gain networks of support as well.

We welcome additional comments and reflections, please email us at: or through the Immigrant Ed Next website.

By Gabriela Flores

Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) are public and private colleges and universities that have at least 25% of full-time equivalent enrollment of Latinx undergraduate students in the United States and Puerto Rico. This summer the Supreme Court overruled affirmative action in Harvard and SFFA v. UNC (2023) which will hinder the educational opportunities for Latinx and other marginalized groups and further perpetuate inequities. Such a decision underlines the importance of HSIs as they continue to advocate for equal opportunities, specifically focusing on increasing the enrollment of marginalized students to assist them in pursuing their educational aspirations.

As of 2022, there are 513 HSIs in the US, 59 in the Puerto Rican territory, and an estimated 400 emerging HSIs. The largest proportion of HSIs are in the states of California and Texas.

Sociology of education scholars have developed several lines of inquiry related to HSIs. One line of work analyzes the role of HSIs within higher education and the perceived value of serving Latinx students. In her work on the status of HSIs relative to other post-secondary institution types, organizational theorist Gina Ann Garcia (2019:3) writes that “HSIs are undervalued as a result of being compared to white normative standards for postsecondary institutions.” Another line of work concerns students’ experiences at HSIs and completion rates to illuminate best practices in serving Latinx students.

I am a first-generation Latina college student. I have attended three HSIs over the course of my academic career, all of them in California. Hence, I came to graduate school with one burning question: How are HSIs serving incoming and graduating Latinx students?

I aim to answer this question through a longitudinal study focused on following my student and parent participants.

Thus far, I have interviewed 16 first-generation Latina college students from low-income backgrounds (self-identifying as women/daughters) currently enrolled in a federally accredited HSI in California. I also interviewed 15 of their parents (primarily women/mothers and a few men/fathers) to gain insight into their relationship and their understanding of the college processes. An unexpected finding in my conversations with these Latina college students and their parents was that while HSIs set out to serve Latinx students, many college-going first-generation Latina students (and their parents) are unaware of what an HSI is, and when introduced to the term, were confused by it. While students and parents were ambivalent about attending an HSI, the minimal or lack of awareness about HSIs generally raises questions to what HSIs are doing to serve and inform their targeted audiences.

In light of this, colleges and universities designated as federally accredited HSI—and those aspiring to such status-- should not only focus on increasing Latinx undergraduate enrollment and graduation rates but also embracing Latinx students and their their goals by engaging in on-going dialogue about the larger aims of HSIs and the inclusive community they aspire to have. The students’ and families' limited awareness about HSIs is not the fault of a Latinx family or community but rather the institution's failure to early outreach in the community.

The Issue: Unawareness and Misconceptions of What it Means to Attend an HSI

In one-on-one interviews, I asked students and their parents about their perspectives on attending a Hispanic-Serving Institution. Most Latina college-going students and their parents did not know they attended an HSI. When I asked my student participant, Kassandra, she said, “No. Is that why I have my own community?” while Sindy responded, “No. I didn’t know that.” Parents also reflected this confusion or unawareness of the university’s HSI status as they responded to the same question with, “No I didn’t know but she is very comfortable at that university.” The disconnect between HSI’s goals and institutions accredited as HSIs is visible.

Although most of my participants expressed not knowing they attended an HSI or what it was, some shared some assumptions based on their campus experiences. I asked students if they were aware that they attended an HSI and the majority responded with a question, such as asking if that is why their campus had a large Latinx population. These students questioned the large presence of the Latinx population and sought out an answer, meanwhile, parents expressed that this presence helped them to feel comfortable with the idea that their daughters were attending college away from home.

This disconnect between students, parents, and institutional agents matters because the common perception of marginalized communities is post-secondary institutions are not for Latinx students or other marginalized communities persists; therefore, if institutions, especially HSIs claim to want to cultivate inclusive and welcoming campuses, outreach to Latinx students and families is critical. In fact, sharing the identity and student body of an HSI may incentivize Latinx students and assuage their anxiety about attending college. Being aware of the existing model as an HSI could help students with a greater sense of belonging before attending college, and families can further support their decision to pursue higher education in such a diverse space.

Further still, students who are unfamiliar with or unaware of what an HSI is, what it means to go to an HSI may also be unfamiliar with and unaware of their campus’ Hispanic/Latina/o/x student support goals, resources, and outcomes. As such, students might not access available resources. Students who are unfamiliar with their post-secondary institution’s accreditation may be unfamiliar with how it may impact their campus population, curriculum, and funding.

The Intervention: Preparing Latinx Students Prior to Enrolling in an HSI

With a push for colleges and universities to become accredited as HSIs, campuses and HSI leadership should implement strategies to inform their Latinx students about what it means to attend an HSI. HSIs have a unique position within the higher education system, therefore, they need to share their initiatives and goals with their targeted audience, Latinx students and families. HSI leadership may visit and host workshops to high schools during college applications, acceptance weeks, and first-year orientations to inform students about their initiatives and goals. The lack of knowing what type of institutions students attend is a systemic issue that does not fall to the student. Institutions should make students aware if their campuses are HSIs. Before the college and university application process, it is critical to share the types of colleges and universities in the United States as they may assist their college choice. For instance, high schools, colleges, and universities should share with students and their families the types of post-secondary institutions, such as HSIs, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and Predominantly White Institutions, along with the advantages and disadvantages.

Knowing that this study’s site contains a large student population that share similar racial/ethnic backgrounds may promise a sense of belonging and placemaking for students prior to enrollment. This might lighten the anxiety of outsider status for first-generation Latinx students who believe that higher education is not for them. Additionally, before selecting a college or university, students and their families should be made aware of the increase of faculty of color on their campus, resources such as HSI education grants and career collaboratives, and research supporting HSI initiatives to continue to increase the enrollment and graduation of Latinx students. Addressing the advantages and disadvantages of HSIs before students begin their college journeys may lead them to pursue higher education and specifically to attend an HSI.

Other than explaining to college-seeking and incoming college students what an HSI is, it is critical to inform current students about other benefits from attending an HSI, such as the possibilities to network with faculty and alumni of color, diverse course curriculum and other vital resources to help them navigate academia. Given colleges and universities' interest in obtaining federal resources available for HSIs, HSI’s proposed goals are at stake, specifically serving marginalized groups. Researchers, practitioners, and legislators should aim to understand the role HSIs play in the experiences and outcomes of Latinx college students; however, it is also essential to inform the students and families themselves.

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Suggested Citation: Lopez-Escobar, L., Rodriguez, S., Flores, G. (2023, October 11). Raising awareness about Hispanic-Serving Institutions for Latinx students and families . Immigrant Ed Next.

Copyright © 2022: Sophia Rodriguez, Immigrant Ed Next-All Rights Reserved

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