Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

Supporting Latino Students through Data, Practice, and Leadership

Latino students represent one of the fastest-growing demographics in higher education, at a time when college enrollment nationwide has dropped for eight consecutive years.

Hispanic students made up 19 percent of college students in the United States in 2016, up from 8 percent in 1996. And between 2000 and 2015, the number of Hispanic students graduating each year with associate’s or bachelor’s degrees more than tripled.

But just enrolling Hispanic students is not enough to ensure students succeed in their studies, progress to graduation, and thrive in their careers and personal lives. According to the US Department of Education, Hispanic students are still not graduating at the same rates as their white peers, especially at four-year institutions, where Hispanic students’ four- and six-year graduation rates lag by 13.5 and 9.5 percentage points, respectively.

“A lot of people talk about, ‘What are the challenges that Latino students have?’” said Deborah Santiago, cofounder and CEO of Excelencia in Education. “When we should be talking about, ‘What are the opportunities institutions have to serve them well?’”

Since 2004, Excelencia in Education has partnered with colleges and universities to close equity gaps between Latino students and their white peers. Excelencia is now affiliated with 125 colleges and universities that enroll and graduate more than 20 percent of Latino students in the United States.

In 2019, nine colleges and universities earned the inaugural Seal of Excelencia, a robust and rigorous certification that recognizes institutions intentionally serving Latinos as evidenced by their data, practice, and leadership.

“After so many years of listening and learning from institutions about what it takes to effectively enroll a student and get them through to completion, we felt what was lacking was a framework to understand what it takes to intentionally serve Latinos while still serving all students,” Santiago said. “These institutions and their intentional efforts to serve Latinos are models for others to consider.”

Below, three AAC&U member institutions that received the Seal of Excelencia—Arizona State University, Austin Community College District, and South Texas College—share how they have seized opportunities to serve Latino students.

Aligning Data, Practice, and Leadership

Many of the institutions that received the Seal of Excelencia are Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), a federal designation for institutions where Hispanic students make up at least 25 percent of the student full-time equivalent population.

“Enrolling Hispanic students can get you a federal designation of being an HSI,” Santiago said. “But it takes more to serve, not just enroll, these students.”

Institutions hoping to earn the Seal sent a team of faculty, staff, and administrators to participate in institutes and other professional development workshops led by Excelencia. AAC&U partners with Excelencia on AAC&U’s Institute on High-Impact Practices and Student Success and for a data institute at AAC&U’s Conference on Diversity, Equity, and Student Success.

“Our partnership with Excelencia aligns with our mission and values to advance quality and equity as key metrics for student success, particularly for students who have been traditionally marginalized in higher education,” said Tia Brown McNair, AAC&U's vice president for diversity, equity, and student success and executive director for the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Campus Centers.

The teams complete a detailed application explaining at least three strategies they use to improve data, practice, and leadership on campus. Each institution must submit at least four years of data showing the efficacy of these strategies.

“It's really important that they do it as a team,” said Joanna Sanchez, Excelencia’s program manager. “Because we understand that going back to your campus to try to get stuff done alone is a lot harder to do.”

Whether or not they received the Seal, the thirty-three institutions that applied benefited from the reflection, feedback, and advice that the process provides.

There is no set benchmark that institutions must achieve to earn the Seal. And their work does not need to exclusively support Latino students. Instead, “we were looking to see if there is intentionality in recruiting them, having them participate, and that there was something about what the school was doing that yielded success,” Santiago said. The nine institutions that received the Seal stood out for their positive momentum toward each of the three areas, which aligned and informed each other.

Excelencia will certify institutions with the Seal each year, and institutions that receive the designation must reapply every two years. This not only helps institutions demonstrate continued commitment to student success but also helps Excelencia improve its efforts to assist partner institutions.

“It is a continuum of learning—them from us, us from them. It's a very mutually beneficial relationship,” said Eyra Pérez, Excelencia’s technical assistance coordinator.

Austin Community College

Since 2010, the Latino student population at Austin Community College (ACC) has increased by 13 percentage points, from 25 percent to 38 percent. Among two-year institutions in the United States, AAC now has the ninth-largest population of Latino students.

“Because of that change in demographics in the community and at ACC, it has made us look at how we operate, really, for everyone,” said Guillermo “Willie” Martinez, interim vice president of student affairs.

“What stood out to me was their strategic plan, their campus climate and culture,” Santiago said. ACC’s “programs on counseling, advising students really made a big difference and changed their perspective of what it takes to serve their students.”

In 2009, as part of the Achieving the Dream project, ACC began disaggregating data by race and ethnicity to identify equity gaps. This work accelerated in 2012, when ACC was selected to participate in the Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success (IPASS) initiative.

Since 2015, ACC has reallocated money, staff time, and other resources to focus on guided pathways. The college consolidated all degree programs into ten areas of study that provide clear program maps explaining what courses students need to graduate and which credits can transfer to other institutions.

ACC also disaggregated data to identify different student “personas,” or subgroups needing certain resources.

“Not every student needs every single service, but there are a lot of students that need certain services,” Martinez said. With forty thousand students in a given term, “how do you be more proactive in finding those students that need tutoring? That need support with housing, food, or other social supports?”

ACC accomplished its most comprehensive reform—reimagining the entire advising infrastructure—by breaking down silos and updating a paper-based system to state-of-the-art case management software.

The reforms “moved us from very transactional interactions with our students to interactions that became much more relational and transformative,” Martinez said.

Through a three-year program with InsideTrack, advisors, faculty, and other staff received intensive training on “advising through coaching.” To continue professional development opportunities around advising, the student affairs office closes at noon on Friday.

Before speaking with students, AAC's faculty, advisors, and success coaches use the online advising platform to identify barriers, track services students need or have received, and identify the courses they need to take to graduate or transfer. Knowing this before students walk in allows advisors to prioritize conversations about students’ goals and aspirations, and how ACC can help students achieve them.

“We have really tried to identify within ourselves what changes we needed to make when we spoke with these students, identifying and understanding where they were coming from,” Martinez said. “It has definitely been transformational for the students and the staff because we have managed to do so much more. And I think the students appreciate that they feel their time is well spent.”

Student affairs now manages ten thousand student cases through collaborative teams of faculty, advisors, and tutors.

But ACC’s work is still ongoing. In the near term, the college is expanding its early-alert system to make both students and, perhaps more importantly, faculty members aware of available resources and interventions.

“When things get in the way, instead of just letting go of the academic dreams, how can we help?” Martinez said. For those times when ACC can’t provide the services students need, the college has developed partnerships with more than a hundred community organizations. “If we don't have those services here, we know where to recommend they go,” Martinez added.

In addition to advising, ACC has worked to improve equity and inclusion across campus. The college is one of only ten institutions nationwide selected to establish a Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) Campus Center by AAC&U. ACC is hiring hiring an inaugural TRHT director and a chief equity, diversity, and inclusion officer; it has a Mexican American Center and African American Center; and it is building an Asian American Center.

To diversify the college's faculty, staff, and administrators, ACC revised policies for job postings and applications to ensure they describe the students AAC serves, explain AAC's mission, and ask applicants to share their own equity-based philosophy or practices. ACC increased training for new full-time and adjunct faculty from one to three days, adding topics such as culturally responsive teaching. ACC also hired new faculty mentors and made training on equity and inclusion mandatory every two years.

ACC’s data show that many of the reforms—especially to advising—are working. For example, 85 percent of first-year, first-time-in-college students who are case-managed in the coaching-based advising system persist from term to term, compared with 70 percent of other students. For male Latino students who participate in coaching, persistence rates are 22 percentage points higher.

Arizona State University

Arizona State University (ASU) is not technically a Hispanic-Serving Institution—its student population does not yet reach the 25 percent threshold—but with over twenty thousand Hispanic students enrolled, “we absolutely serve Hispanic students,” said Stanlie James, vice provost for inclusion and community engagement at ASU.

ASU “had a lot more outreach and engagement in not just the Phoenix area but throughout Arizona to make sure that the students felt like they could be included,” Santiago said. “They improved completion for Latino students, and there was progress in the faculty representation that they have on their campuses.”

The ASU community is committed to the university's charter “to make sure that our students, when they leave ASU, use the knowledge that they have attained for the betterment of their communities,” James said.

Because many Latino students begin at community colleges before transferring, ASU has strengthened relationships with the Maricopa Community Colleges and other two-year institutions, coordinating curriculum requirements to ensure credits are easily transferable. If community college students already know their intended major, they get associate’s and bachelor’s degree maps. Students who transfer to ASU before completing their associate's degree can be awarded both degrees upon completion of their bachelor’s degree.

ASU also carefully cultivates relationships with K–12 schools and other community groups to ensure that Latino populations have access to higher education.

“We want them to go to college,” James said. “We really would love for them to come to ASU, but they'll be prepared to go wherever it is that they want to go.”

Spanish-speaking counselors reach out to areas with high populations of migrant laborers to help students and their parents understand resources at ASU and what it takes to enroll, including enrollment requirements, application processes, and FAFSA and scholarship information.

For the last thirty years, the Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program (HMDP) has partnered with ASU and Arizona middle schools to increase awareness and opportunities among potential first-generation students and their families. Though it has retained its name from the early days, HMDP is open to potential first-generation students beyond mothers and their daughters.

“We have aunts and nieces, we have older sisters and younger sisters. The men were excited about what we were doing with the mother-daughter program, so they wanted a piece of it,” James said.

Middle school counselors identify seventh-grade students and their family members interested in participating, and the students and relatives attend workshops and work one-on-one with ASU advisors throughout eighth grade and high school.  

ASU also actively supports the many DACA students it enrolls. When the Arizona legislature changed funding laws to disallow DACA students from receiving state-based aid, ASU raised money to cover the difference between out-of-state and in-state tuition. ASU law school staff have helped students reapply for DACA status, and ASU began a fund to pay for documentation fees.

When authorities began raiding local workplaces for employing undocumented people, ASU ensured that DACA students who needed jobs could have them on campus.

“Many of them have to work to be able to support themselves and to go to school,” James said. “That was one less thing that they had to worry about.”

While ASU has succeeded in increasing the number of underrepresented minority students on its campus, like many other universities, it has not diversified its faculty at the same rate.

A small team of ASU administrators recently attended a conference sponsored by Excelencia and the USC Rossier School of Education's Center for Urban Education on transforming the composition of faculty. ASU is redesigning the training for search committees to ensure more diverse pools of finalists for faculty positions.

ASU’s Cronkite School of Journalism, which runs the PBS station for the state of Arizona, makes sure Latino voices and faces are represented in their programming. ASU hired several respected Latino journalists to instruct students as they staff positions including on-air hosts and behind-the-scenes producers, editors, and a camera operator. Students are producing a Spanish-language news program five days a week. It has been so successful that other public news stations have asked to work with Cronkite to create similar programs.

In filling out the application for the Seal of Excelencia, the campus team realized that they needed to pay more attention to Latino participation in honors programs and are now planning to do more work there.

“We're more interested in being known for whom we include than whom we exclude,” James said.

South Texas College

At South Texas College, a community college in McAllen, Latinos make up more than 90 percent of the student population.

“We hear about Hispanic students being underserved all across the country, and it occurs to all of us immediately that they're essentially the only students we serve,” said Christopher Nelson, associate dean of curriculum and student learning.

Excelencia has “seen HSIs, those that have a majority of Latino students, that aren't overtly or intentionally serving them,” Santiago said. South Texas is different. “Their institutional practices were very robust and showed how Latinos were performing,” she said.

Recently, student success initiatives at South Texas have focused on four initiatives: the Dreamers Resource Center, the ASCENDer program, dual-credit programs, and the Center for Mexican American Studies.

South Texas established the Dreamers Resource Center when President Donald Trump first announced the reversal of protections under the DACA program.

“A lot of people in this area, being on the border, were sort of freaked out about this,” Nelson said. “How is this going to affect us? Are we going to be able to get past checkpoints? When are we going to be deported?”

The college staff noticed a decline in enrollment and campus visits and wondered if fear about immigration policy could be part of the cause. The student affairs office began designing resources, which “evolved into a resource center for DACA students, undocumented students, students of mixed-status families, and their families themselves,” Nelson said.

The center works with students and their families to clarify what the institution can and cannot do to support them. The center is “essentially trying to get the message across that this is and remains a safe place to come, and to be, and to learn,” he said. “We were really, really proud of that, and the community responded really well.”

After Texas passed legislation mandating that students needing additional preparation in reading and writing cannot be enrolled in non-credit-bearing developmental courses, South Texas created ASCENDer, a program that joins a first-year writing course with a first-year-experience learning community.

In small cohorts, students attend classes that are “deeply infused with culturally and contextually relevant material for Latinos and Latinas in the South Texas Rio Grande Valley area,” Nelson said. For many of their assignments, students are encouraged to delve into their personal histories and experiences.

When the cohort students finally enroll in their second English composition course, the campus hosts an event for faculty, students, and families.

“We feed everybody and celebrate how wonderful it is to be here, to be a student at South Texas College,” Nelson said.

South Texas’s dual-credit program partners with twenty-four school districts and more than seventy high schools. Each year, these courses serve between 12,000 and 15,000 students, allowing them to take college classes with no tuition and fees. The college works closely with the high schools to ensure that courses are rigorous and align with the South Texas curriculum.

The college also works with its largest transfer partner, the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV), to ensure that credits can easily transfer. South Texas has participated in the Texas Pathways Project to clarify educational pathways for students, provide support, and ease the transfer process. South Texas is also participating in the Guided Pathways project led by AAC&U and the Community College Center for Student Engagement.

“We view ourselves as the middle of a long stretch of road,” Nelson said. “We work backward with our high school partners and forwards with our transfer partners.”

South Texas launched its Center for Mexican-American Studies alongside its Mexican American Studies academic program in the mid 2000s. The center hosts promotional and celebratory events and is the home of the renowned Ballet Folklórico.

South Texas has been examining its data to examine students’ achievement of learning outcomes in courses, progression toward graduation, and success at four-year institutions after they transfer. The Equality of Opportunity Project, which examined how colleges help students’ upward socioeconomic mobility, ranked South Texas eighth in the nation and first among community colleges in Texas.

“That's the kind of data that really, really matters,” Nelson said. “Are we having an impact on their lives three, four, five, six, ten years after we've bid them goodbye? And I think that report sort of slammed home a really powerful affirmative answer to that question.”

Nelson also emphasizes that, in addition to providing support, feedback, and professional development, the Seal of Excelencia brings recognition that truly matters on campus. 

“Having these kinds of national recognitions reminds those of us who are close to the work that ‘Hey, the work that you're doing is actually making a difference,’” Nelson said. “For incoming faculty, I think they get a sense that ‘Oh, I haven't landed someplace off the map. I've landed someplace that is doing some really cool, phenomenal work.’”