Utah universities pushing to increase Hispanic enrollment

Graduate candidates stand during Weber State University’s commencement in Ogden on April 26, 2019. The university is one of a growing number of higher education institutions in the state pushing to increase Hispanic enrollment.

Graduate candidates stand during Weber State University’s commencement in Ogden on April 26, 2019. The university is one of a growing number of higher education institutions in the state pushing to increase Hispanic enrollment. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News )

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SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah's Hispanic population grows, many of the state's higher education institutions are putting resources toward recruiting and retaining Hispanic students.

The efforts are part of a push among colleges and universities to become Hispanic-Serving Institutions — a federal designation that requires at least 25% of students be Hispanic. Once institutions obtain that status, they're eligible for additional federal funding, typically for student success and retention.

There are over 550 HSIs in the country, with 80% located in California, Florida, Illinois, New Mexico, New York, Texas and Puerto Rico. Utah is one of 21 states without an HSI, according to a report from the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.

However, the state does have an Emerging HSI — defined as an institution with 15-24.9% Hispanic enrollment — in the form of Salt Lake Community College. The college appears to have the highest percentage of Hispanic students in the state, reporting fall 2022 enrollment as 21% Hispanic. The Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities also lists Ensign College as an Emerging HSI; however, the college did not respond to multiple requests for enrollment data, and its website says nearly 8% of students were Hispanic as of fall 2021.

How soon will Utah gain a Hispanic-Serving Institution?

How soon will Utah gain a Hispanic-Serving Institution? It depends on who you ask.

Utah Valley University College of Science Dean Daniel Horns, who has worked on the university's efforts to become an HSI, said the demographics in Utah, where 15% of the population is Hispanic, don't yet support an HSI in the state.

"It's just demographics. Latinos would have to be wildly overrepresented relative to the community at any university in Utah in order for that university to be an HSI," Horns said. "That's true of the college-age population. Now, in five years that will not be true; the college-age population will be trending towards 25%."

Horns estimated UVU could reach that 25% in the next decade. Meanwhile, Salt Lake Community College staff members said the college hopes to reach that benchmark sometime between 2025 and 2028, and staff members from the University of Utah gave the university a four- to five-year timeline to reach that benchmark.

"The Latinx, or Hispanic population is the fastest growing — and so that's going to, in many ways, happen by default," said Martell Teasley, interim senior vice president of academic affairs at the University of Utah.

"As those young people age," Teasley continued, "we'll start to see more of them coming to the U. We certainly welcome them and we'll adapt to what's needed to get them a quality education."

Why pursue Hispanic-Serving Institution status?

Becoming an HSI is much more than a numbers game, said representatives from multiple higher education institutions. Instead, pursuing HSI status allows colleges and universities to be proactive about higher education's changing demographics.

"When higher ed was created, it was of course for CisHet (cisgender and heterosexual) white men, right? But now that's not the only demographics that we serve," said Alonso Reyna Rivarola, SLCC's senior director for institutional equity, inclusion and transformation. "We have to be adaptive and we have to be willing to change."

Hispanic students are a large factor in those changing demographics. According to a report from the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, Hispanic students earned 25% of associate degrees and 15% of bachelor's degrees in 2020, compared to 13% of associate degrees and 9% of bachelor's degrees in 2011. Additionally, Hispanic enrollment in higher education is expected to exceed 4.18 million students by 2026, far surpassing the growth rate of any other racial-ethnic group.

Utah colleges and universities' efforts include on-campus initiatives like recruiting more bilingual and Latino faculty and on-campus mental health counselors as well as updating syllabi, student club offerings, mentoring resources and educational programs to be more inclusive. Schools are also expanding their efforts beyond campuses by creating community connections and reaching out to middle and high school students in Title I schools. UVU, for instance, works with Latinos in Action clubs to help recruit Latino students for its summer programs.

"If we're not looking ahead and knowing that these are the students who are coming to us as the largest institution in the state, then we're missing our service region and missing serving it properly and engaging our community," said Tara Ivie, UVU's associate vice president of inclusive excellence. "We have a responsibility to make sure that we're looking forward and understanding the students that are going to come to UVU not just next year, but in the next five, 10 and 20 years."

How are universities pursuing Hispanic-Serving Institution status?

A number of Utah higher education institutions have teams dedicated to serving Hispanic students. They range from UVU — whose nationally recognized Latino Initiative has increased Hispanic graduation rates 724% since it began in 2007 — to Weber State University, which opened a Hispanic-Serving Institution Initiatives office earlier this year.

Being proactive about serving increasingly diverse student bodies often means changing campus culture to better understand and target issues students of marginalized background face, university officials say. For many of them, that change is happening now — long before they have the enrollment numbers to be an HSI.

"To become a Hispanic-Serving Institution, it doesn't happen overnight," said Yudi Lewis, Weber State University's executive director of Hispanic-Serving Initiatives. "It takes a lot of work, a lot of collaboration, a lot of relationship building, and a lot of listening to the needs that exist on the college campus."

Reaching students in the right timeframe is also important.

"Any underrepresented population, historically, has not gotten the message (that college is) for them. So, that's one of the reasons that that early outreach is so important — because if we're waiting until they're juniors or seniors in high school, their minds are pretty set on what's happening in the next few years." UVU's Ivie said.

Institutions that are not actively pursuing HSI status, like Brigham Young University and Utah Tech, still say they are working to recruit Hispanic students. BYU spokesman Tyler Stahle, for example, said BYU has expanded outreach to prospective Hispanic students, including conducting recruiting events in Chicago and Texas in Spanish and holding a Spanish livestream webinar for prospective Hispanic students and their families.

Reyna, with SLCC, stressed that pursuing HSI status in the wrong way could be harmful to students.

"I don't want to risk becoming what I call a 'Hispanic-mocking institution' — something that reduces Latinidad to sombreros and taco Tuesdays. That's not what we're striving to do," he said. "For us, becoming an HSI is not about the numbers. The numbers, of course, help us get the federal designation; however, we really want to pay attention to our practices to see how we can actually work to bring in more students and sustain who we have already and graduate them."

What does Hispanic-Serving Institution status offer?

Officials at Utah colleges and universities stressed that becoming a Hispanic-Serving Institution is beneficial to students of all backgrounds.

"Receiving that extra federal designation doesn't mean that an institution is only going to work with Latino students or enhance opportunities just for Latino students," WSU's Lewis said. "The funding that comes with becoming an HSI allows every single university to expand services to all students, regardless of their ethnicity or how they identify."

Horns, the UVU dean, used first-generation students to illustrate this point. Hispanic students are much more likely to be first-generation students — with nearly half of Hispanic students being the first in their family to attend college, according to a 2019 report. Retaining Hispanic students, then, requires making campuses more accessible for first-generation students, something that will support all first-generation students.

"Pursuing HSI status isn't necessarily about targeting any one group; it's about sending the message that higher education is right for every group," Horns said.

Contributing: Erin Cox

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Sydnee Chapman Gonzalez is a reporter and recent Utah transplant. She works at the Utah Investigative Journalism Project and was previously at KSL.com and the Wenatchee World in Washington. Her reporting has focused on marginalized communities, homelessness and local government. She grew up in Arizona and has lived in various parts of Mexico. During her free time, she enjoys hiking, traveling, rock climbing and embroidery.


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