Gina Garcia is the leading scholar on Hispanic Serving Institutions
Gina Ann Garcia’s research focuses on issues of equity and justice in higher education.
MORE IN THIS SECTION
A Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) — California State University, Northridge — was responsible for Gina Ann Garcia’s first contact with higher education.
Since then, she has pursued master’s and Ph.D.’s degrees, and has been working for almost 10 years as an Associate Professor in the department of Educational Foundations, Organizations, and Policy at the University of Pittsburgh. She has never been able to stop working towards the future scenario of education in the United States.
Primarily as research professor, Garcia’s work is dedicated to HSIs and how institutions that weren’t founded to serve Latino students come to serve them. She approaches higher education as a system, looking at how it operates all together instead of analyzing just one organization.
“I think HSIs have to come to terms with its designation,” Garcia said. “It means that they are committed to supporting a community that has been underserved in this country.”
Garcia explains that HSIs aren’t like Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which have been around and serving the Black community for over 100 years. HBCUs originally only accepted Black students because they couldn’t attend white institutions due to segregation. On the other hand, HSIs were predominantly white institutions for the majority of their existence and aren’t anymore because of the changing demographics. Now, they have to focus on what to do to catch up and serve the shift.
WHAT BEING AN HSI MEANS
The federal designation to become a HSI is enrollment driven. Institutions that reach 25% of Hispanic students can submit an application and go through the process. Institutions have to reapply every year to get their title again and they can lose their designation if they don’t do it or if their numbers of Latino students drop below 25% — being no longer eligible.
The designation also has a component of high needy students, who are low income and fall under the low income programs — such as pell grants, for example. Considering that income and race are very connected as most students in HSIs are low income, high needy Hispanic students make institutions eligible to apply for the competitive process of federal funding.
However, Garcia highlights that being a HSI and having a large percentage of Hispanic students doesn’t necessarily mean that institutions have done anything to serve those students. Her work focuses on the equity and justice part, for institutions that want to do more than just the technical aspect that the federal government is providing. Garcia promotes this shift by showing institutions how to structurally change in order to become better servers and center Latino students in their educational processes — considering all the dimensions and intersections that the Latino identity has.
Language, income, first-generation and sometimes undocumented students are important conversations when dealing with Latino students in college. Students who are in college tend to be bilingual and bicultural, but not necessarily. Garcia explains that it is important to also consider the families, as studies show that the parents are highly involved in the students' college decision making.
“Just because the students are bilingual, it doesn’t mean that the families are,” she added. “HSIs have to also better serve the families.”
Most of the practices implemented on HSIs campus are driven by federal grants. Making the curriculum more culturally relevant, supporting academic programs and providing faculty professional training development are common at HSIs. The Department of Education has priorities every year for the grants, and if institutions address those, they earn more points, Garcia explained.
Because of this, whatever the federal government's priorities are, that's what institutions tend to do. This year, for example, one of the priorities was social and emotional mental health; so institutions are likely to elevate the focus on this matter.
THE ROLE OF HSIs
There is an evolving conversation on the role that HSIs should play. Considered a young designation among colleges and universities, just like the population of Latinos in the United states, HSIs are still shaping what higher education is.
A study published in 1995, by Daniel G. Solórzano, showed that the majority of the Latino people who pursued Ph.D. got their bachelor’s degrees at HSIs. Considering that the research was done at a time with way less HSIs, Garcia said that if someone repeated it now, we would see that the number just got bigger.
Also adding to the discussion about the lack of Latino faculty not only at HSIs but at all colleges, Garcia believes HSIs can be better producers or create better pathways into those future faculty roles as well.
HSIs now represent 18% of all colleges and universities — in 2020-21, there were 559 HSIs located in 29 states. In the next five to 10 years, predictions show that HSIs will represent a quarter of all colleges and universities in the country, being the producers of the future workforce and affecting every industry.
“The future of the workforce is going to be Hispanic, is going to be Latinx,” Garcia said.
On top of that, different studies about economic and social mobility show that HSIs are greater producers of it in relation to non-HSIs. This means that those institutions are doing a great job enrolling low-income students who graduate, get jobs and become more economically viable people, Garcia added.
CHALLENGES AND CHANGES FOR THE FUTURE OF HSIs
Garcia’s work is trying to promote a cultural shift at HSIs. Data and research show that institutions often feel hesitant to claim its commitment to Hispanic people, or other minority groups, because it sounds exclusionary.
For her, HSIs should claim it on their mission statements, which would make more students want to attend these institutions if they knew what is being done for the community.
“A lot of students don’t even know they are studying at a HSI,” Garcia said.
For the first time since the designation became official, in 1992, HSIs decreased in Fall 2020. Since its creation, it had only stately increased. This phenomenon is related to the decrease in the number of Latinos entering higher education — as it correlates with the number of HSIs, which are only enrollment driven.
Not only due to the pandemic, but other factors have influenced this trend. An important one highlighted by Garcia, is the outrageous cost of college, making it inaccessible for many. As an alternative, people are choosing to enter the workforce to secure a more solid economic future for them and their families.
HSIs still have a long future ahead of them, especially in defining what they mean and what their role is. However, realizing the importance it plays in the society and enhancing it will be essential for its maintenance and growth.
“We know higher education produces a lot more than just individual outcomes like graduating, getting a job or promoting economic mobility,” Garcia said. “It creates students’ critical consciousness, and makes them more civically and politically engaged."