NBC News: Latino senators want more investment in Hispanic-serving colleges, universities

By Suzanne Gamboa

On the heels of the release of 2020 Census data showing about 18.8 million Latinos are under 18, two U.S. Senators moved to bolster attention and money from Congress for Hispanic Serving Institutions, HSIs.

Sens. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said Thursday they have formed the first Senate HSI Caucus to promote education equity. 

They also hope the caucus can help educate more members of Congress about the universities and colleges that have been certified as HSIs and that some have them in their districts and states.

For the first time, Latinos under 18 are over one quarter of the nation’s total youth population (25.7 percent), according to 2020 Census figures.

A university or college is considered an HSI when 25 percent of its full-time undergraduate students are Hispanic or Latino and when it meets other criteria regarding students with financial need and spending per student.

Padilla said the formation of the caucus came about after he was asked by Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., if he was interested in getting involved in the Senate’s Historically Black Colleges and University Caucus. 

“My answer was I was absolutely interested and is there also an HSI caucus and how can we get the two caucuses to work together?” Padilla said.

Padilla said it was news to him and Coons that there was not a Senate HSI caucus.

Caucuses are made up of groups of members with a common issue interest or objective; some are bipartisan. Padilla and Menendez are co-chairs of the HSI caucus.

Education as key to states’ growth

Because California’s population is about 40 percent Latino, the future of the state’s success is dependent on the academic and career success of young Latinos as well as other population groups, Padilla said.

“But California is certainly not alone in that regard,” Padilla said.

The recently released Census figures showed Latinos accounted for over half of the U.S. population growth, numbering about 62 million and making up about 18 percent of its population.

While the nation’s overall population of young people under 18 declined 1.4 percent, Latinos in that age group increased 9.5 percent, according to an analysis of census numbers by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund.

Padilla said he sees the HSI effort as an extension of his work from his tenure in the California State Legislature. There he passed bills improving the transfer rates of community college students to four-year institutions; many community college students are Latino.

“To support a highly educated workforce, develop future leaders, and build a more inclusive democracy and economy, we must ensure Latino students thrive,” Padilla stated in a press release about the HSI caucus. “No other state has more Hispanic-Serving Institutions than California, where we know that diversity is our greatest strength.”

“Behind the curve” in support for HSIs

There are 569 HSIs in the country and they all compete for a finite pool of grant money that has increased marginally over the years. Funding has not kept up with the 30 new HSIs that emerge each year, said Antonio Flores, president and CEO of Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities based in San Antonio.

The Center for American Progress reported last year that the nation spent $87 per Latino student enrolled at an HSI. Two-thirds of all Hispanic undergraduates were enrolled at an HSI in 2019, according to HACU.

Flores said Latinos “still are behind the curve” in creating support for HSIs. 

“We are beginning to create that impetus in Congress ourselves, but we are not where they are,” Flores said.

President Joe Biden has asked Congress for half a billion dollars to fund HSIs in 2022. But it less than the more than $1 billion requested for 101 Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Flores said.

HBCUs do not compete for the pool of money appropriated for them. They all receive a share, he said.

The differences in support is, in part, because of the strong advocacy from the Congressional Black Caucus and other members of Congress who have HBCUs in their districts or states and “are going to bat for them,” he said.

There also is also greater need for understanding what HSIs are and what they are about. HBCUs have been around longer and in the public consciousness more, Flores said.

“We don’t have those assets on our side and we have to ourselves increase the awareness, the understanding of the public at large of how important HSIs are for the country,” he said.

Flores worries that as Latinos increasingly fill the ranks of the workforce, the failure to invest in their education will harm the national economy. 

“To the extent we are not preparing, as best we can, the American labor force — which is made up mainly of Hispanics in the new waves of workers — we may not be as competitive in the global economy,” he said. “This is something that policymakers and legislators, government needs to understand.”

HBCUs were established when Blacks were denied entry to higher education institutions. HSIs have developed around where Latino populations have grown. However, many were once the only institutions Latinos could attend because of racist admissions policies and other inequities. 

The House formed an HSI Caucus in 2017. Reps. Joaquín Castro, D-Texas, Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., Maria Diaz-Balart, R-Fla. and Jennifer González-Colón, the congressional delegate from Puerto Rico, serve as its co-chairs.

Castro noted that the Senate’s formation of the HSI caucus comes after the re-establishment of the White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence and Economic Opportunity by Biden.

“There’s extraordinary momentum right now to make investments in the success of Hispanic students,” said Castro, adding that he has worked on the issue for almost 20 years, in Texas Legislature and in Congress, where he serves on the House Education and Labor Committee.

The census showed that the nation’s white population had shrunk and the nation had become more multi-cultural in the past decade.

Padilla noted that universities and colleges designated as HSIs, also educate a significant number of Black, Asian American and Native American students.

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