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What Is a Hispanic-Serving Institution? Understand the Importance of HSIs

October 25, 2021

A Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) is a federal designation that not only supports an institution’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, but also presents opportunities for grant funding and supports enrollment, retention, and graduation rates. To embrace the designation means an institution is dedicated to serving all students so they are successful.  

Recognizing a Rapidly Growing Demographic 

In the 1980s, educators and policymakers pursued HSIs as a grassroots effort to recognize institutions that enroll a large number of Latinx students, which was and continues to be a rapidly growing demographic in the U.S., according to Higher Education Today. From 2010 to 2019, the U.S. population increased by 18.9 million, and Hispanics accounted for more than half of that growth, according to a Pew Research Center analysis

In 1986, the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) formed and would eventually become the membership association for HSIs. HACU persuaded Congress to formally recognize HSIs in 1992, resulting in federal funding to HSI-designated institutions, which today represent roughly 15 percent of all nonprofit colleges and universities and enroll more than half of all Hispanic students in college in the U.S.  

In order to be eligible for an HSI designation, an institution’s undergraduate enrollment must be at least 25 percent Hispanic and demonstrate a high concentration of students who are eligible for Pell Grants, as outlined in the Higher Education Act. With an HSI designation, an institution is eligible to compete for substantial grants from several organizations, including the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). 

Aside from the benefits of additional funding, having an HSI designation helps to foster an inclusive culture on campus—one that supports marginalized students from start to finish. A 2017 study by the American Council on Education, for reference, found that full-time students at public four-year HSIs earn a bachelor’s degree within six years at a rate of nearly 75 percent, compared to a federal graduation rate of 42.7 percent. 

An Effort to Better Serve Colorado 

At CU Denver, roughly one in four students is Hispanic, according to Faye Caronan, PhD, who heads Ethnic Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS). Caronan served as the chancellor’s first faculty fellow to support diversity, equity, and inclusion.  

“Obtaining HSI status allows us access to resources to better serve our students and in turn better serve Colorado,” Caronan said. Those resources include federal grants that are specifically designated for HSIs. One example is funding from the Department of Education for HSIs to develop curriculum and programming aimed to increased Latino students in STEM fields. 

Before applying for an HSI designation, institutions must meet the student demographic enrollment requirement and demonstrate eligibility for Titles III and V funding, which are 1) the percent of students who are eligible for a Pell grant (defined as need-based grants to low-income undergraduate students) or other Title IV need-based financial assistance and 2) if the institution falls below a “core expense per student” threshold.