Reconceptualizing Service at HSIs – Decolonization and Innovation

One of the most interesting and useful books on higher education that I have read in quite some time is Gina Ann Garcia’s Becoming Hispanic-Serving Institutions: Opportunities for Colleges and Universities. It is relevant and provocative. Most importantly, it is also quite helpful to scholars, faculty, administrators and institutions as they think through how and what it means to support Hispanic (or Latinx) students and their success.

The number of Hispanic students attending college in the United States has been expanding – and it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The nation’s Hispanic population is growing and in the first fifteen years of this century, college-attendance among Hispanic high school graduates went from 22 to 37 percent. Most Hispanic students attend Hispanic Serving Institutions of higher education (HSIs). These are colleges and universities that have undergraduate enrollment of at least 25% Hispanic students and not less than 50% of all students are eligible for Title IV aid (need). Receiving an HSI designation allows an institution to apply for Title III and Title federal grants.

But what does being an HSI mean above and beyond enrollment numbers and demographics? It is a question many in higher education have been wrestling with for decades. Garcia, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, provides a compelling answer in her book. Becoming Hispanic-Serving Institutions deservedly won the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education annual prize. I anticipate that higher education is going to be studying it for years to come.

Garcia asserts, unapologetically, that racial categorization systematically undervalues the work of HSIs. She argues that the prevalence of white normative standards (SAT and ACT scores, graduation rates, selectivity, research productivity, etc.) in the ranking and evaluation of institutions of higher education and, by default, the education that they provide, works to maintain a established racially grounded hierarchy for “quality.” HSIs, which are public, less well-funded, and often more focused on serving their students, are disadvantaged in this narrative. Garcia takes a different approach, looking closely at the efforts of three Midwestern HSIs. Her data and analysis lead her to a counter-narrative for educational value. She wants to decolonize HSIs.

Garcia’s work identifies different kinds of HSIs. She has published on this before, too; it’s a very useful lens to understand the label and the heterogeneity of institutions under the title. Garcia identifies Latinx-enrolling as institutions that have Hispanic enrollment but lack the structure, mission or culture that is focused on supporting Latinx students. Latinx-producing institutions have the enrollment and demonstrate increased awareness of Latinx students and the importance of improved outcomes. These institutions, however, do not have a culture focused on the development of Latinx students. Latinx-enhancing institutions do possess the culture, but the outcomes for Latinx students lag. Lastly, a Latinx-serving institution has the numbers, the culture, the awareness, and the outcomes, demonstrating a commitment to equity. Garcia believes that all types of HSIs are valid and worthy. She emphasizes that mission and identity are established in relationship to context. In other words, there are isomorphic pressures that drive institutions to seek similar structures and priorities. Within the constellation of HSIs, those forces can work to shape institutional identity and practice.

The heart of the book are the case studies: a mid-size four year Master’s public college/university; a small, private associate and four-year college; and a small, private master’s college/university with a professional career focus. Using Garcia’s typology, the first fits as Latinx-enhancing, the second is Latinx-serving, and the third is Latinx-producing. Her deeper dives into each of these institutions reveals the ways that the needs and wants of various stakeholders (students, faculty, administration, professional organizations, etc.) play out. The research underscores the complexity of institutional identity and the experience of any one individual. Simple explanations may be easy to repeat, but they do not do justice to the complicated interplay of a student, her family, her teachers, and the many offices, functions and interactions she might have over a semester at a college.

Garcia is a thoughtful and careful listener. She is also a good questioner adn researcher. As I read her summarized interviews, I recognized similar voices and stories from my own HSI community college. Making Garcia’s work all the more relevant, though, is her ability to contextualize – with theory – the data from her research. She moves comfortably between individual, institutional, theoretical and practical planes.

The final chapter looks at the different ways that HSIs serve – and the importance of highlighting, capturing, evaluating and celebrating their work. Garcia’s ultimate aim is to show that HSIs are not lesser institutions. Instead, they are different institutions than non-HSIs. Her exercise in re-framing offers practical considerations for all who work at HSIs. Garcia is aware that many models and theories are not applicable to the work of HSIs. The ideas in her book offer a counter-framing. Along similar lines, she looks for “counter-stories” within HSIs to facilitate potential greater effectiveness. It’s a very good way of tying together the book with action.

Specifically, Garcia calls for 1) curricula and programs grounded in justice and equity; 2) faculty and staff committed to justice and liberation; 3) valuing and embracing nondominant input, process and outcome variables; 4) bilingualism and the preservation of Spanish; 5) high-touch practices, including advising and experiential learning; 6) diverse financial aid and support. All of these make sense. However, as Garcia notes, they are not without risk. They call for institutions to liberate themselves from the dominant racialized stratification of institutions. That can be a challenging path to navigate, especially when the agent of change – the institution – is also dependent on external agents that may be less willing to embrace counter-narratives.

Garcia is a scholar to watch. She has given us much to consider in Becoming Hispanic-Serving Institutions and, for those of us who work at an HSI, even more to do. It is a worthy and welcome challenge.

David Potash

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