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What I learned about Latinx student success from 8 Hispanic-Serving Institutions

April 23, 2020

Like every household across the country, I recently received a letter in the mail prompting me to fill out the 2020 Census. I’m originally from Mexico City, but in the decade I’ve lived in the US, I’ve filled countless forms that require me to list my demographic traits. These forms often reduce my identity to a few words: Hispanic, Mexican, Latina, or Chicana.

The six year graduation rate for Latinx students is 10 percentage points lower compared to white students
The six year graduation rate for Latinx students is 10 percentage points lower compared to white students

But these broad categories obscure the diversity in the lived experiences of those who identify with them. For example, while my time in the American higher education system as an international student went smoothly, many Latinx students haven’t had the same experience. Nationwide, the proportion of Latinx students who graduate within six years is still 10 percentage points lower than the proportion of whites.

When I’ve spoken to student success leaders at Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) to understand their approaches to closing these equity gaps, they emphasize that equity initiatives cannot and should not paper over the different challenges Latinx students can face, which can include family language barriers, undocumented status, and multiple commitments outside of school.

When it comes to what other schools should do, these leaders shared three principles for meaningfully impacting Latinx student success:

In my conversations with administrators, I asked them about the ethnic and racial identities and terminologies that their students and institutions adhere to. The administrators (some of whom are Hispanic or Latinx, some who are not) helped me to understand how racial and ethnic identity and experience plays out on their campuses, from California and Texas to New York and Massachusetts. All of them confirmed that the term most students prefer is Latinx, which is more inclusive, so I’ve opted to use that term in this blogpost.

1. Reduce barriers to college access and success that disproportionately impact Latinx students

Most of the recent literature on Latinx student success has centered on the immense progress made in the last decade in terms of overall Latinx enrollment and graduation rates. While the stats look promising, they mostly reflect an increase in the total number of Latinx students in higher education. Wide equity gaps continue to persist when comparing Latinx student outcomes to white student outcomes. Beyond the differences in six-year graduation rates, disparities also exist in persistence rates, transfer rates from community colleges to four-year schools, completion of STEM majors, employment rates, and salary levels, among others.

To address these gaps, student success leaders at many two and four-year institutions have developed programming that is tailored to the challenges Latinx students commonly encounter.

Several schools have also taken steps to make their Coordinated Care Network, including services like advising and tutoring, accessible to Latinx students who may be juggling one or many jobs, as well as family responsibilities, along with their studies. At CSU-Fullerton, this includes extended hours, alternate locations, and virtual options for students to connect with student support staff.

And at Florida International University—a majority minority school (66% of FIU students are Hispanic), administrators have taken steps to address the equity gaps that get less coverage, including the number of Latinx students who successfully complete mathematics courses or earn STEM majors. Their Mastery Math Lab is specifically designed to improve student performance in individual math courses (many of which are required to succeed in a STEM major), while the STEM Transformation Institute helps FIU students to successfully earn STEM degrees. The results of these initiatives are impressive: FIU graduates the highest number of Hispanics in STEM across the country, specifically in engineering.

2. Foster belongingness and champion Latinx representation

Every contact that I spoke with agreed that despite Latinx students making up 25% or more of their enrollments, Latinx student success continues to be hindered by a lack of belongingness and representation. One contact shared:

“These students feel that these schools weren’t built for students like them, and we’ve been too slow as an industry at facilitating meaningful change.”

A 2019 report found that Latinx students are underrepresented at both community and technical colleges and at four-year institutions in most states compared to their proportion of the states’ residents.

Chicano/Latino Commencement Ceremony
© 2019 California State University, Fresno All Rights Reserved

At the Community College of Denver, Community College of Aurora, and CSU-East Bay, family orientation sessions are held in English and Spanish, allowing non-English speaking parents and family members to attend and understand how to support students throughout their whole college journey. As one student success specialist told me, “Hosting ‘Ven Conoce Nuestra Universidad’ (Come, Learn About our University) sends the message to the student and to the people supporting them that we as a school understand and celebrate who they are, and that there are people here who can help them.”

Latinx-specific graduation ceremonies have also been important tools to foster belongingness. While many schools have institution or college-wide commencement ceremonies, HSIs often host a dedicated commencement ceremony for Latinx students and their families. Almost 15,000 people attended California State University, Fresno’s Chicano/Latino Commencement Ceremony in 2019, in which approximately 1,150 students graduated. The event—the 43rd annual—included traditional singing and dancing from different Chicano and Latinx groups, and when students received their diploma, their names and the names of the family members were read out loud by a native Spanish speaker. The Community College of Aurora holds a similar, though smaller-scale, ceremony for their Latinx graduates, which administrators describe as an important celebration and recognition of Chicano/Latino achievement and culture.

Even when college initiatives celebrate their identity, Latinx students can still feel marginalized if they don’t see their experiences and identities reflected by the staff, faculty, and administrators on their campuses. As one HSI co-chair told me:

“I somehow end up advising what feels like every Latinx student on this campus. And whenever someone new comes into my office, I ask, ‘why don’t you go see your advisor, or the chair of your department?’ But then they inevitably say ‘it feels like you understand me better, I’m more comfortable speaking with another Latino’, so then I just tell them to pull up a chair.”

At the Community College of Denver (CCD), inconsistent hiring processes coupled with unconscious bias resulted in an enrollment office predominantly staffed by white students and professionals—despite enrolling large numbers of minority students. In response, Tami Selby, the Executive Dean of Enrollment Management at CCD, mitigated biased hiring practices and purposefully increased the rate of minority students and staff, particularly those who identified as Latinx. Dr. Selby also offers staff higher pay if they are bilingual in Spanish (she does this by listing bilingual as a preferred qualification, which allows them to reach a higher pay scale if they have that preferred skill). Dr. Selby told me this skill not only makes it easier for staff to connect with students and families, but also enhances their job abilities, like any other credential would.

3. Use technology to connect Latinx students to faculty, staff, and resources

All the administrators I contacted agreed that technology has an important role to play in closing equity gaps and improving Latinx student success. Many spoke about the opportunity to better understand and improve Latinx performance in specific courses or majors, while others pointed to ways in which case management systems and multi-modal communication and nudges can be used to reach and support Latinx students.


percentage point increase in Latinx student retention rate from 2013 to 2018
percentage point increase in Latinx student retention rate from 2013 to 2018

At Pikes Peak Community College (PPCC), administrators use Navigate’s early alert capabilities to identify first-time-in-college students—including many who are Latinx and/or identify as undocumented—who may be struggling, and to connect these students to the resources that can help them succeed. Sometimes this means connecting them to services like tutoring or financial aid, but other times, it means putting them in touch with others who understand their experiences. The College’s Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) office connects struggling students with students and mentors that look like them, and through the “United Men of Color Program,” PPCC is closing the equity gap for men of color. These efforts are paying off: their Latinx retention rate has increased from 48.3% in 2013 to 52% in 2018.

At Northern Essex Community College, which enrolls high numbers of first-generation, Latinx students, administrators help to connect students and faculty—and to build empathy—by asking faculty to provide “tips” on how to be successful in college directly to students. Faculty are asked to submit tips. The college collects these and populates them into the Navigate Student app. Students then receive different “tips” from faculty regarding study habits, selecting classes, or making friendships, at key points in the semester, via the app. Additionally, they can send messages to faculty members for their registered classes or make appointments to meet with them or advisors.

What’s next for Latinx student success

The next time I’ll be asked to fill out a census will be in 2030, it is projected that the Hispanic/Latinx population in the United States will significantly increase in that time period. Mirroring this trend, researchers expect Hispanic/Latinx college enrollment to grow by 14% in roughly the next decade.

I hope that by 2030, when we’re enrolling record-breaking numbers of Latinx students, we have successfully narrowed equity gaps by paying close attention to their unique experiences. One of the student success leaders I spoke with explained, “I’ve heard the argument that if you have excellent student success initiatives across the board, underserved students, including Latinx, will succeed. This shows a fundamental misunderstanding between equality and equity. It also shows a lack of awareness about the unique challenges these students face and the opportunities we have to support them.”

When I first drafted this blog post, the coronavirus was an emerging but still distant threat. Since then, we’ve seen the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impact Latinx communities in a variety of ways, from those working in the fields securing our food to those held in crowded detention centers to those in cities with limited access to health care and employment. We have no way of knowing how all these factors will affect the next generation of Latinx college students—whether they will re-enroll in the fall, or decide to come to college at all. But it is imperative that colleges consider their diverse and unique experiences as they work to retain the largest growing population of college-going students.

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