Alexei Koseff, Sacramento Bee, February 11, 2015
When the University of California, Santa Barbara, announced last month that it had been named a Hispanic-Serving Institution, it made a small bit of history.
After a decades-long effort to boost enrollment from underserved communities, the Isla Vista campus became the first member of the elite Association of American Universities, an organization of 62 leading research universities, to reach the HSI designation.
Awarded by the federal government, the status signifies that at least 25 percent of the school’s student body is Latino, making it eligible for new programs and millions of dollars in targeted grants. It also indicates that the work of California’s public university systems to reflect the state’s increasing diversity is paying off.
“It basically says that a top-ranking, national university can be a diverse campus and that adds to its strength,” said Lisa Przekop, director of admissions for UC Santa Barbara. “It sends the word out nationally.”
But Latinos remain vastly underrepresented at the University of California, where four of nine campuses have been designated HSIs, and California State University, where 18 of 23 campuses and the system as a whole have reached the benchmark. While they now comprise more than 46 percent of California high school graduates, only about 22 percent of undergraduates at UC and 35 percent at CSU are Latino.
Expanding the diversity in their student ranks has been a goal for UC and CSU for years.
While acknowledging that the state’s shifting demographics have driven much of the changes in the student body, UC Santa Barbara officials also pointed to numerous outreach efforts: visits to rural high schools and those that have not traditionally submitted many applications, bus tours to the campus, resource guides for ethnic groups, and educational tools for counselors to ensure students fulfill eligibility requirements.
Initiatives are also taking place at the systemwide level. CSU conducts Spanish-language college fairs and parent training programs in the communities near its campuses, sponsors Latino-oriented academic conferences, and produces a bilingual insert about college preparation in the newspaper La Opinión.
UC Davis, where about 19 percent of undergraduates are Latino, recently committed to reaching the Hispanic-Serving Institution benchmark by 2018. It has stepped up recruitment and transfer agreements at community colleges, while working with Latino students as young as kindergarten to get them excited about the possibilities of college.
Sacramento State is just on the cusp of 25 percent and expects to be designated within the year. President Alexander Gonzalez, who previously led Latino enrollment pushes at CSUs in Fresno and San Marcos, is looking forward to seeing a large, destination campus like Sacramento achieve that level of diversity. “For us,” he said, “it’s going to be a real milestone.”
Schools with HSI status can see significant benefits. Federal agencies ranging from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the National Endowment for the Humanities have awards aimed at Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and $98 million in funding was available through the U.S. Department of Education last year, according to the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, an advocacy group for HSIs.
UC Riverside, which is more than 32 percent Latino, was the first UC campus to be designated, in 2008. Steve Brint, vice provost for undergraduate education, said the university has subsequently been able to attract funding to expand its undergraduate research opportunities and create new student support programs, such as a fellowship for minorities interested in careers in academia.
A $4 million grant from 2008 to 2011, funded by the federal College Cost Reduction and Access Act, supported a project with regional community colleges to ensure science, technology, engineering and mathematics students were well-prepared to transfer to UC Riverside.
Members of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities will meet this year to discuss their mission as HSIs, according to association chair and CSU San Bernardino President Tomás Morales. He suggested the universities should focus on raising Latinos’ degree attainment and work more to improve their surrounding, often heavily Latino, communities.
“What does it really mean to be a Hispanic-Serving Institution, beyond simply the numerical designation?” he said. “That’s a hard question to answer.”