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Lisa Alcorta.
Before joining HACU, Alcorta worked at The University of Texas at Austin, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and Victoria College of Texas. Photo credit: courtesy.

Lisa Alcorta puts HACU’s mission in action

HACU uses data to address areas where Latinos are missing in the education system.

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The Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) has been around for more than 35 years. A member organization, it was created to advocate for Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) and encourage legislation and awareness of their importance in serving diverse populations.  

HACU’s members are divided into institutions that are designated HSIs, which have 25% of Latino students, and emerging HSIs, which are getting up to 25% and are focused on increasing Latino students. The association has a membership of more than 500 colleges and universities in the United States, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, Latin America, and Spain, and includes U.S. school districts. 

Since 2021, Lisa Alcorta has been serving as senior vice president of programs and operations at HACU’s headquarters in San Antonio, Texas. In her work, she is responsible for developing ways their member institutions can improve, offer and inform students about scholarships, grants and financial aid. 

“I think what’s really important is not only that we [HACU] are at the advocacy level, supporting our institutions to ensure legislation is impacted by the needs that they have,” Alcorta said. “But our role also is to convene and advocate in getting support through our corporate entity team to also expand scholarships for our students.”    

HACU has a legislative arm in Washington D.C. that mainly works on advocating for its institutions and students at the federal — and states — level. Understanding how the lack of financial aid can be a barrier for Hispanic students who want to pursue higher education, Alcorta says HACU wants to facilitate those pathways. 

COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT 

HACU organizes annual conferences across the country to share information and ideas for the best and most promising practices in the education of Hispanics. Their Capital Forum aims to not only connect member institutions and leaders in Washington D.C. to actively engage in congress visits and discussions but also provide information about HACU’s legislative agenda and areas they should be focusing on in federal policy. 

The organization’s big annual conference happens in October, receiving over 2,000 attendees and up to 700 plus students. HACU invites high school students and their families to the event so they can attend workshops to obtain information about scholarships and opportunities they can access through HACU’s partnerships. 

“We find it very important to go into the community and partner with one of our member institutions to be sure we are getting that message out to our families around financial aid,” Alcorta said. 

These events are especially important for first-generation college students — which many Latinos are, including Alcorta — as they don’t have a network of people to contact when wanting to learn more about the system or find a job. Having contacts at the corporate level can provide internship opportunities, help students while in school, and serve as an employment alternative after graduation. 

“We see ourselves as an important organization to provide that access to a network,” Alcorta added. “When I was growing up, I didn’t know who to call for a job.” 

Although local in San Antonio, HACU works extensively in spreading their message across the country. By doing career fairs, sharing information on its website, promoting workshops and more; the organization aims to support opportunities for students in leadership and advocacy roles too. 

Understanding the importance of setting an example, at conferences, HACU brings presenters from colleges and universities that are outstanding in their work of including Latinos and promoting opportunities to them. Other members can benefit and get inspired by the successful stories, and HACU wants to make sure they are able to help institutions that want to grow — but sometimes don’t have the resources to do so. 

“I think it’s important that we acknowledge the institutions that are doing good work and best practices,” Alcorta said.  

WORKING WITH DATA AND CURRENT PROJECTS 

Data is a key component of HACU’s compromise in identifying and addressing gaps and challenges pertinent to the Latino experience in the education system. 

The organization delivers data on its website about HSIs’ growth and enrollment as it helps establish a policy agenda to ensure states and federal governments are aware of this population’s situation. At the congress level, HACU advocates for the importance of expanding financial aid for students, as well addressing the debt and having free community colleges. 

At the micro level, the organization looks at specific data from colleges and universities, and has a policy and analysis team that reviews data on demographic shifts, and graduation and retention rates. 

After understanding via data that there are some fields in which Latinos are lacking — such as at the STEM graduate level, energy sector and medical practices positions —  HACU looks into finding ways to support their own grants or assisting their institutions to locate and access other resources.  

“What can we do, as an organization working with our institutions that have medical schools, for example, to impact and improve the workforce of Latinos in the medical field,” Alcorta said. 

By looking into partnerships with national companies to create pathways in the energy sector, or collaborating with colleges and universities about impacting STEM fields; HACU wants to make sure Latinos aren’t missing out on any opportunities due to a lack of funding. 

“Our work needs to be intentional and in collaboration with HACU’s corporate partners that are willing to collaborate,” Alcorta stated. 

One of the organization’s current biggest projects is encouraging and helping its member institutions to apply for the National Science Foundation (NSF) grants program, as those scholarship funds go directly to the institutions. Congress should direct NSF to appropriate $55 million for a competitive grants program to support HSIs — among other purposes — in research, curriculum and infrastructure development. 

According to HACU’s website, although Hispanics are the nation’s largest ethnic population, and comprise the fastest-growing sector of the U.S. labor force and 18% of the general population. Hispanic students were awarded almost 6% of STEM doctorates in 2014, increasing to almost 8% in 2019. However, these proportions aren’t even close to representing the U.S. population, which was 18.5% Hispanics in 2019. 

IMPROVEMENTS TO BE MADE 

Representing the population they serve, HACU’s staff are mostly practitioners in higher education — and also first-generation students. The board members are CEOs, presidents, and chancellors from across the country to ensure they are portraying the voices of every institution and student in the U.S.

HACU promotes leadership training not only for students, but also for individuals within the institutions — faculty, administrators and staff in colleges and universities — aiming to be impactful in increasing diversity at the administration level as well. 

Although the association actively targets issues in different areas, Alcorta believes there is always room to improve. She wants to keep making arrangements with their federal partners to increase internship opportunities and expand their corporate partnerships to offer more scholarships. 

She understands the importance of giving Hispanic students from different backgrounds a voice so they can speak up about their difficulties and goals. From states with a huge population of Latinos — Florida, Texas, California — to others where their presence isn’t as eloquent; HACU wants to offer them the same chances to be successful. 

“We want to hear from them, our students: how we can improve and what they need,” she concluded. 

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