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Beyond the Designation: How to Cover Hispanic-Serving Institutions

As the Hispanic population increases in the United States, so does the list of Hispanic-serving institutions, or HSIs. Experts discuss how reporters can best cover this underreported group of colleges.

Photo credit: Diego Cervo/Bigstock

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The Hispanic population has continued to grow in the United States and so has the number of Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs).  

President Joe Biden created a National HSI Week to “acknowledge the many ways these institutions and their graduates contribute to our country.”

HSIs are higher education institutions with a full-time undergraduate student enrollment that is at least 25% Hispanic. They are two-year or four-year institutions, public or private, urban or rural. 

With more than 500 institutions designated HSIs and federal funding being funneled into them, it is important for reporters to understand what the designation means and how colleges use the funding they receive for being an HSI. 

Chalkbeat Colorado Reporter Jason Gonzales moderated a panel on HSIs during EWA’s 2023 Higher Education Seminar in Riverside, California last September. He asked experts how to cover HSIs thoroughly. 

“Just because an institution has the HSI designation, it doesn’t mean that they serve Hispanic students to the best of their abilities,” said Anne-Marie Núñez, executive director of the Diana Natalicio Institute for Hispanic Student Success at the University of Texas at El Paso.   

Núñez said that she has been publishing research on HSIs since 2009, and only in recent years has seen some visibility about HSIs in national conversations about higher education. 

Here are three steps reporters should follow when covering HSIs:

1. Find the HSI Data

To learn whether an institution has been designated an HSI, a reporter should check the National Center for Education Statistics

That’s where reporters can check whether their local colleges are HSIs and the percentages of Hispanic students they have. The data is also broken down by the type of degree that Hispanic students are pursuing in each institution. 

While states such as California and Texas have dozens of HSIs, other states, including Virginia and Idaho, only have one. Others have none. And while some institutions just reached the 25% enrollment threshold, others have consistently had over 80% Hispanic student enrollment. 

Another important point reporters should know is that most institutions that are often ranked as “top colleges” nationwide are not HSIs and have a small number of Hispanic students. The Ivy League institutions, for example, are not HSIs. 

2. Understand the Hispanic Student Population 

HSIs must “realize the unique qualities of their students,” Nuñez said. “Where do students come from? Where I am, 5% of the student body crosses the border every day from Mexico so that has a big influence on our institution.”

The majority of Hispanic students in higher education are Mexican and Puerto Rican. But certain institutions might have a larger number of Dominicans or Colombians, for example. 

And it’s important to remember that HSIs don’t serve Hispanic students only, Nuñez said. “HSIs actually enroll more Black students than historically Black colleges and universities and more Native American students than tribal colleges and universities.” 

But beyond demographic information, reporters should understand the specific challenges these students face. 

Dyami Ruiz-Martinez, a student member on the San Bernardino Valley College district’s board of trustees, said that for many Hispanic students, “higher education is a very foreign environment.”

About 60% of Hispanic college graduates are the first in their family to attend college.

Ruiz-Martinez was one of these students. He attended Mount San Antonio College and transferred to University of California-Irvine, where he studied anthropology and political science. 

It was a faculty member who told Ruiz-Martinez that higher education was possible for him. Through that faculty member’s encouragement, he found motivation to keep going. 

Institutions should “show them that there is a path for them to then navigate into [a four-year college] and into a career that will be fulfilling and will move them up the social, economic ladder,” he said. 

3. Analyze Investment in Hispanic Students 

Arlene Cano Matute called University of California-Riverside, her alma mater where she serves as assistant director of the office of Chicano Students Programs, a “grassroots Hispanic-serving institution.” 

She explained that a lot of the investment in Hispanic students can be traced back to the 1960s “when students pushed for resources through advocacy and activism, even before there was an official federal designation.”

Through programming and other initiatives, Hispanic students “institutionalized this legacy.” 

The designation has helped funnel federal dollars into these institutions. The American Rescue Plan alone invested $11 billion in HSIs

There are three grants that the HSI division of the federal Office of Postsecondary Education offers to HSIs. One of them is specific to STEM fields. These grants aren’t strict in how institutions spend the funding. 

For the most part, it’s up to the institution to decide how to use the grants – and up to reporters to follow the money and hold them accountable. 

What matters is how an institution serves the Hispanic population “with deliverables,” Cano Matute said. 

She added that institutions should commit to Hispanic students from the beginning of their college career to graduation and beyond. “Servingness is defined as a culture that enrolls, cultivates, graduates and validates Chicanx/Latinx scholars,” she said. 

Some of the deliverables, Cano Matute said, include family orientation in Spanish, peer-to-peer mentorship programs and resource centers for Latino students. 

Resources Reporters Should Consider