Equity Implications for Higher Education Policy

As an immigrant to this great nation and a citizen by choice, I am reminded of those last six words in the Pledge of Allegiance that I recited at my naturalization ceremony: “with liberty and justice for all.” These six words resonate with me today as clear and compelling as they did in 1998. Especially the term justice. 

In its best sense, justice is done when the disadvantaged in our midst are not treated as equals of those that enjoy privilege and position. To be equitable, the achievements and potential of the former should be accounted for within the context of such disparities. Treating people of unequal circumstances as equal is an injustice. To level the playing field, those of lesser means should be afforded the most support by society to improve their lot. Unfortunately, this is not the case concerning Hispanic Americans or Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs).     

In 2019, it was reported that 18.3% of the U.S. population was Hispanic or 60 million strong. As the youngest and fastest-growing population, Hispanics now comprise about 20.3% of the college population and their enrollment growth has outpaced all other racial/ethnic groups in recent years; in spite of this, Hispanics still lag behind them in graduation rates in both high school and college. Hispanics are making good progress but are not yet at par with the rest of America on educational attainment.

HSIs educate the most diverse and underserved student populations in the nation. They educate two out of every three of the 3.8 million Hispanics in college, more African Americans than all the Historically Black Colleges and Universities combined, more Native Americans than all the Tribal Colleges and Universities collectively, and more Asian Americans than any other cohort of institutions, as well as a sizeable number of white students. The 550 HSIs are a microcosm of 21st Century America with 5 million students from all walks of life.

While HSIs represent only 15 percent of all institutions of higher education, they enroll nearly one out of four Federal Pell Grant recipients. HSIs received $6.7 billion of the total $26.8 billion in Federal Pell Grants in 2016 or 25 percent of the total. Regrettably, they remain the least resourced institutions while serving some of the neediest students and communities; they receive, on average, only 68 cents for every dollar their non-HSI peers get per student from all federal sources.

Despite being financially disadvantaged when compared to other institutions of higher education, HSIs are engines of upward mobility for millions of students. According to Opportunity Insights, HSIs represent 7 of the top 10 high mobility institutions in the nation. HSIs are helping students move from the bottom income quintile to the top income quintile among their graduates with amazing success.

Despite all of this, there is hope. For example, the Fostering Undergraduate Talent by Unlocking Resources for Education (FUTURE) Act, signed into law on December 19, 2019, mandates $255 million of critical annual funding to be invested in HSIs as well as Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and other Minority-Serving Institutions. This funding will help community colleges and universities increase the rate of Hispanic representation as engineers, scientists, health professionals, and technicians across the nation.

Additionally, HACU is championing the Hispanic Educational Resources and Empowerment (HERE) Act which calls for federal support for HSIs to work more closely with PK-12 school districts that enroll the most low-income and students of color in the nation to increase their high school graduation rates and college readiness.

 In the past two decades since I recited those six words, I am hopeful that legislation like the FUTURE Act and the HERE Act will reverse funding disparities in higher education and will continue to pave the way for much needed funding for HSIs and other Minority-Serving Institutions. Increasing access to education and improving college graduation rates are fundamental keys to ensuring that Hispanics, one of the fastest growing populations in the U.S., can fully experience liberty and justice for all.