WASHINGTON — Nine institutions of higher learning across the country on Thursday received the first “Seal of Excelencia” for what the group handing out the award says is a commitment to Latino students and a demonstrated ability to serve them.
Deborah Santiago, CEO and co-founder of the group, Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit based in Washington that analyzes and measures institutions' Latino enrollment and graduation rates, said the award was intended to establish "high standards of expectation that show an institution is truly serving Latinos."
"They are trendsetters in what we think more institutions across the country need to be doing to make sure our Latino students in higher education are served well,” she said of the winners. "The seal sets a high standard and benchmark on what it means — and not just on enrollment.”
The group narrowed the winners down from an original list of 100 institutions.
“We look at several areas and at positive momentum in those areas: Are you enrolling Latinos? Are you retaining these students? Are you transferring them in or out? Are you supporting them financially? Are you graduating them? Do you have faculty and staff that represent them?" Santiago said.
"Are you partnering with community organizations and feeder schools to better prepare students, and are you working with the families on what is expected of the students. What percentage of faculty is Latino? What about administrators? Do you embrace your institution as one serving Latinos, and is it open and inviting to Latino students?” Santiago told NBC News.
One of the institutions that was recognized was Austin Community College, with 11 campuses serving more than 40,000 students; more than 45 percent of freshmen are Hispanic.
Dr. Virginia Fraire, Austin Community College's vice president of student affairs, said, “The seal is an affirmation of what we do — we create an atmosphere for Latinos to thrive."
"We serve students who may be the first in their families to go to college, and we have a very strong support network, with tutoring and coaching, and it’s a culture that we’re trying to create for students who may not be familiar with navigating the terrain to feel at home and feel that there is somebody here to help them be successful,” Fraire said.
Jodi González, from the Austin suburb of Kyle, Texas, said that her son Michael, who graduated this month from a nontraditional high school with a majority Latino student body, is heading to ACC in the fall in part because the college went out of its way to reach out to students like him.
“I liked that they have that kind of outreach in high school, not like some other schools such as UT that are basically waiting for people to come to them and are not doing any outreach," she said, referring to the University of Texas. "ACC has a lot of options and different career paths, and there is exposure to all that. It’s a better fit for him because he would get swallowed up in a more traditional and large university setting,” she said.
In addition to ACC, the other institutions are:
Excelencia’s Santiago adds that the seal, which will be awarded annually, is not a ranking, but rather part of the organization’s mission of increasing the number of Latinos who receive a college degree and are prepared for the workforce of the future.
While the Latino population is among the fastest-growing in the United States, Hispanics still lag behind in college completion, with 22 percent of Latino adults earning an associate degree or higher, compared to 39 percent of the general population. Latinos also earn less over a lifetime, an issue that Excelencia calls the “equity gap.”
Though the percentage of Latino students enrolling in college has increased drastically in recent years, the key is for them to graduate, say experts like Santiago.
“Having a higher education is vital to succeed in today’s global economy,” Santiago said. “If institutions aren’t effectively serving our Latino students, we lose a vital source of talent for our workforce and civic leadership. Institutions that strive for and most particularly those that earn the Seal, have demonstrated their capacity to grow our country’s highly skilled workforce and develop leaders — in other words, these institutions are ensuring America’s future.”