Hispanic-serving colleges and universities struggle to adapt to the pandemic

‘Government support is going to be vital.’

 

Northern New Mexico College in Española, serves a population of 67% Latino students.

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As COVID-19 spreads across the U.S., the West’s institutions of higher education are racing to adapt, from moving classes online to closing dorms and reimbursing students for housing and dining.

But not all schools have the resources to respond. Minority-serving institutions, or MSIs, which enroll significant proportions of non-white students, can be crucial gateways to the middle class for students of color. According to research by the American Council on Education, MSI students have higher economic mobility rates than non-MSI students. This means that students from the lowest-income families are more likely to attain above-average incomes if they attend MSIs. But the pandemic is increasing the strain on already-overstretched institutional budgets.

Hispanic-serving institutions, or HSIs, whose student bodies range from 25% Latino to more than 90% Latino, were scrambling for equitable federal funding well before the pandemic. According to the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, or HACU, for every dollar in federal funding that non-HSI schools receive, HSIs get just 68 cents. Meanwhile, more Latinos are attending college than ever, with a majority attending HSIs. Approximately 45% of the nation’s HSIs are in the Western United States, with a third of all HSIs in California alone.

On March 27, Congress approved an emergency spending bill for COVID-19 aid that includes almost $31 billion for the Department of Education. The funding takes into account how many need-based Pell Grant recipients attend each school and gives the schools broad discretion in deciding how to spend the money, from improving remote learning systems to helping out students in need. HACU estimates that approximately 0.69% (some $214 million) of the allocation is designated specifically for HSIs.

Antonio R. Flores has been president of HACU for more than 20 years. After attending college in Mexico (“I guess it was an HSI,” he joked), he attended graduate school in Michigan. Today, even as he adjusts to working remotely, Flores is urging Congress to provide more funding for HSIs in response to COVID-19.

High Country News recently spoke with Flores about the unique challenges that HSIs face during this pandemic. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Antonio R. Flores, president of HACU.
Courtesy photo

High Country News: How are Hispanic-serving institutions being impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Antonio R. Flores: Because these institutions are seriously underfunded by the federal government, they are not as prepared to cope with a crisis like this, in terms of having the best digital infrastructure, connectivity and so forth. They have to scramble to put together platforms for online teaching. Instructors might not be up to par in terms of teaching online, and some of the students might even be challenged taking courses online, in terms of having access to the best technology and bandwidth.

Just in terms of overall infrastructure and capacity to respond to a crisis like this, HSIs just don’t have the reserves to use to pay for things that need to be used in lieu of regular campus life.

HCN: What are some of the financial challenges?

ARF: Obviously, (HSIs) have to pay their employees — even if the students might be all trying to do things online, the schools still have to pay the personnel they need, and for their infrastructure, and those things cost money. The schools are underfunded already, so it may be extremely hard for them to come up with what it takes to really meet the challenges of keeping going. 

HCN: Why do you think it’s important for HSIs to survive?

ARF: These institutions represent the best avenue for the Latino community to succeed in terms of getting a higher education.

They, by far, have the largest number of Latino students enrolled: Out of the 3.8 million Latino students in college nationwide, HSIs enroll more than two-thirds of them. We have about 550 colleges and universities across the country that we represent.

HSIs are really among the very best socioeconomic movers of lower-income people to higher socioeconomic status. Upon graduation, those grads move out of poverty and become part of middle class in significant numbers, and contribute to society in multiple ways.

Students from all walks of life attend those universities, so they are very diverse institutions. The students they serve really are a microcosm of America’s 21st century demography.

The parking lot of University of New Mexico, Los Alamos, is empty after students transitioned to online classes.

HCN: You wrote a letter to Congress requesting increased funding for HSIs in response to COVID-19, saying, “HSIs receive 68 cents for every dollar going to all other colleges and universities annually, per student, from all federal funding sources, to educate a disproportionately low-income student population.” What does that mean?

ARF: We compile information on all the revenue sources that institutions have from the federal government — student aid, research money, all types of funding. We estimate that for every dollar going to non-HSIs, per student, HSIs only get about 68 cents. So we have a gap of about 32 cents on the dollar, and these institutions educate some of the neediest students in the country.

It used to be worse. When I first came to HACU years ago, it was 48 cents on the dollar. We are moving in the right direction — 20 cents in 20 years. We don’t want to take another 20 years. I’m not going to be around in 22 years, and I don’t want the HSIs to be moving at such a slow pace.

HCN: Are there particular challenges for HSIs in the Western U.S., and beyond?

The challenges primarily have to do with two things. One is the very high rate of enrollment increases for HSIs, particularly of Latino students, because that is the population that is growing in higher ed — as it is broadly across the country.

If you look at trends from the last five to 10 years, you will see that the Latino student population has been going up significantly, whereas white student enrollment has gone down dramatically. So on the one hand, you have the greater demand for education from Latinos. On the other hand, you don’t have adequate resources, so it’s a one-two punch.

The good news is we have many more Latino students who are going to college and graduating, wanting to improve their lives and contributing to the American economic labor force.

HCN: Looking forward, what else are you keeping an eye on?

ARF: It’s so crazy, the whole (COVID-19) thing. Right now, (HACU) is in a survival mode, trying to follow directives from public health officials — isolation, social distancing, all of that.

HCN: Is there anything you’d like to add?

ARF: I hope Congress, when it gets back to work, zeros in on higher education as a national priority and HSIs as an important part of that priority, and appropriates more funding for them to keep going. Government support is going to be vital for them going forward.

Maya L. Kapoor is an associate editor at High Country News. Email her at mayak@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor 

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