Welcome to Race on Campus. The number of Hispanic-serving institutions has grown significantly in the past decade. But some researchers are raising concerns that the federal money earmarked for HSIs isn’t necessarily doing what it’s supposed to do: directly support Latino/a students. Our Sarah Brown interviewed one researcher who found that colleges pursued that money for plenty of other reasons.

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‘We Need the Cash’

Within the next few years, one in four public and private nonprofit colleges will meet the enrollment threshold to become a Hispanic-serving institution. Under federal law, that means 25 percent of a college’s full-time undergraduate students are Hispanic or Latino/a.

There were 569 colleges that hit that mark in 2019, and another 362 institutions that were close, according to the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, which tracks this trend. (For-profit colleges are excluded.) To become federally designated as an HSI, colleges have to apply with the Education Department.

Federal designation makes colleges eligible for competitive grants intended to support Latino/a students, two-thirds of whom enroll at HSIs.

But experts are increasingly questioning whether the money is actually fulfilling that goal.

Stephanie Aguilar-Smith, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of North Texas, published a study this month examining why colleges pursue Title V HSI grants.

Aguilar-Smith was curious whether administrators and others at HSIs considered the grants to be a “neutral external resource” — in other words, a funding source that was “simply useful in addressing existing organizational needs,” rather than specifically benefiting Latino/a students.

Building off of other recent studies that have raised similar concerns, she concluded that “many HSIs seem to capitalize on their Latinx students.”

In the spring of 2020, she interviewed 23 administrators, staff members, and faculty members from a dozen colleges that had regularly applied for federal HSI grants, both successfully and unsuccessfully, between 2009 and 2017. Seven were public and private four-year universities, while five were community colleges.

Aguilar-Smith found that those HSIs went after the grants for a range of reasons, including “some that have little to do with immediately serving students generally or Latinx students specifically.” Many people told her they saw the money “as a means of assuaging their institution’s financial precarity,” she wrote.

The grants were often compensating for gaps caused by years of state-funding declines, enrollment issues, and budget shortfalls. At several institutions she examined, the financial need was dire.

One grant manager at a private university in the Midwest told Aguilar-Smith: “We’re applying because we need the cash. … We’re in a place where it’s evolve or die.”

‘Extractive Rather Than Intentional’

In many cases, colleges were applying for the grants to upgrade technology, renovate buildings, and create new student-support programs — things that were badly needed but that the college couldn’t afford.

Technically, shoring up campus budgets aligns with the stated purpose of the HSI program, Aguilar-Smith noted, as colleges with large shares of Latino/a students have been traditionally underfunded compared with predominantly white colleges.

But few of the administrators she interviewed directly connected their pursuit of HSI grants to better serving Latino/a students.

Some admitted that their colleges had applied for federal HSI grants to pay for “innovative” projects that were not necessarily “responsive to the needs of students of color or low-income students” — like new high-tech degree and certificate programs. One campus official said pursuing the grant for that purpose “felt like shiny-object syndrome.”

The Education Department requires grant recipients to report back each year on how the money is being used. Yet there’s no mandate for HSI grants to specifically benefit Latino/a students.

A few people told Aguilar-Smith that applying for the Hispanic-serving grants was more of a “Why not?” decision, since their institution enrolled enough Latino/a students to qualify. One administrator said that senior leaders at her campus don’t seem to understand the HSI program or what the money is for; they just “want to have this funding no matter what.”

Securing federal grants is also appealing because it’s a traditional marker of prestige in higher ed, several interview participants said.

One faculty member expressed particular frustration with the fact that some prestigious, majority-white universities that barely hit the 25-percent Latino/a enrollment threshold were able to apply for federal HSI money. “What they’re really doing is taking limited funds away from institutions that don’t have that money otherwise,” the administrator said. (Colleges have to enroll a certain percentage of low-income students and demonstrate financial need to receive HSI grants, but institutions can ask the Education Department to waive one or both requirements.)

Only one of the people Aguilar-Smith interviewed talked specifically about how Latino/a students aren’t a monolith and why it’s important to account for the differences between, for instance, Puerto Rican students and Mexican students.

Aguilar-Smith said her findings underscore that colleges enrolling increasingly large numbers of Latino/a students need to do some soul-searching.

Her own institution, the University of North Texas, became a federally designated HSI last year and appears to be making the transition thoughtfully, she said. North Texas has created a task force, convened discussions about what it means to be Hispanic-serving, and outlined plans to make the campus more inclusive. But not all colleges are doing that, she said.

In some cases, Aguilar-Smith said, colleges’ pursuit of HSI grants “seems very extractive rather than intentional.”

Coming Up

My colleague Katie Mangan and I are digging into this issue more in an upcoming feature story. We wanted to know: Why are so many colleges trying to become HSIs? The short answer: It’s complicated.

Keep an eye out for our story this week in Academe Today. —Sarah Brown

Read Up.

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