Where the Hispanic Students Are (And Aren’t)

A new report that examines the reasons why nearly half of all Latino undergraduates

A new report that examines the reasons why nearly half of all Latino undergraduates enroll in just six percent of the nation’s colleges classified as “Hispanic serving institutions” offers important implications for other universities looking to attract such students, says Deborah A. Santiago, author of “Choosing Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs): A Closer Look at Latino Students’ College Choices.”

“These students who went to HSIs looked at cost … location and accessibility. Whereas those who went to more selective institutions, they looked at financial aid, prestige and academic programs,” says Santiago, vice president for policy and research at Excelencia in Education, a group focused on Hispanic higher education issues that released the policy brief Thursday. The attention to sticker price among students enrolling in the nation’s 236 HSIs — which tend to be public, less expensive and less selective — in addition to these students’ failure to recognize “qualitative differences between institutions,” should show more-selective colleges that they must promote their financial aid offerings at the same time that they educate Hispanics on variations in quality, she says.

“How do you educate the students about [quality issues] in addition to the fact that their tuition and fees might be covered?” Santiago says, in framing the challenge for colleges.

Hispanic serving institutions, defined by the federal government as institutions where Hispanic students comprise at least a quarter of undergraduate enrollment, are defined by their enrollment, not their missions. Nearly half of all HSIs are public two-year colleges, 60 percent have open admissions, and the average tuition rate for public four-year HSIs (representing about 20 percent of all such institutions) is, at $1,590, less than half the average in-state tuition at public four-year institutions generally ($3,400). With their commitment to access, HSIs have evolved into “uniquely community institutions of the first choice for Latino students,” the report notes, cautioning that their general lack of selectivity should not be mistaken to suggest they “are not quality institutions of higher education,” too.

But while Hispanic students do not report being influenced by an institution’s HSI status in choosing their colleges, the colleges’ low costs, accessibility and locations in and near Latino communities “align with Latino student priorities and needs and explain why many students choose HSIs,” finds the report, which is based on interviews with students. Meanwhile, the majority of high-achieving students at HSIs, defined in the report as those with a high school grade point average of 3.1 or higher on a 4.0 scale, say “that the quality of the academic program was not the determining factor in their college choice.”

In contrast, Hispanics attending more selective institutions — who are less likely to be first-generation college students than their peers at HSIs — are more sensitive to the quality of academic programs and college reputations and are more likely to live further from their families. Although cost is also an issue for these students, they are less sensitive to sticker price, and more likely to choose the college that offers the best financial aid package.

Whereas their high-achieving peers at HSIs are less likely to have even applied for financial aid and are more likely to have turned down loans, the study finds. Many live at home to cut costs — only 7 percent of Latino undergraduates live on campus, compared to 14 percent of all undergraduates. At each focus group the researchers conducted at Hispanic serving institutions, the report finds, “students stated they chose their institution because they believed they could get a quality education there without having to go into debt.”

“We had students tell us that ‘college is college…. You can get the same education anywhere — why go elsewhere and pay more?’ ” says Santiago.

“These students are making very pragmatic decisions — not bad choices, but based on priorities different than conventional wisdom would dictate. That I think has implications for institutions across the country … so that you don’t just presume that college choices are based solely on prestige and academic programs.”