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Number of Hispanic Serving Institutions falls as pandemic cuts Latino enrollment

This year marks the first decline in more than two decades of the number of colleges and universities with at least 25 percent full-time Hispanic students, according to new data.
Illustration of a graduate walking across the stage as the scene disintegrates.
Between 2019 and 2021, there was a nearly 7 percent drop in Latino college enrollment. Franco Zacharzewski for NBC News

The number of colleges and universities that are Hispanic Serving Institutions fell as Latino enrollment declined during the pandemic, according to new data from Excelencia in Education, a Latino higher education research and advocacy group.

Universities and colleges qualifying as Hispanic Serving Institutions, or HSIs, dropped from 569 in 2020-21 to 559 in 2021-22 , according to the data provided first to NBC News. This is the largest decline in HSIs since 1996-97.

HSIs are accredited public colleges and universities or private not-for-profit degree-granting institutions with 25 percent or more full-time undergraduate students who are Hispanic.

More than 10 institutions that were HSIs lost that designation but some schools also joined the list during the same period of time, making it a net loss of 10.

Deborah Santiago, founder and CEO of Excelencia in Education and creator of the HSI list, said the decrease in HSIs is the result of a drop in Latino enrollment, closures of HSIs and some consolidations of institutions in Arizona and Dallas.

“Our community was disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and I think these numbers bear that out,” she said. 

Excelencia in Education announced its annual list of HSIs on Thursday.

The University of California, Santa Barbara, the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and St. Joseph's College-New York were among the schools where Latino enrollment dropped.

Reaching the threshold of at least 25 percent Latino enrollment and meeting criteria on lower-income student enrollments allow institutions to apply for Department of Education funds designated for HSIs.

The decline in Latino college enrollment is worse than the HSI numbers show because the population of college-age Latinos grows annually by hundreds of thousands, Santiago said. Latinos led the nation’s growth over the last decade, accounting for more than half of the U.S. population’s  increase.

From the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2021, there was a 6.9 percent drop in Latino undergraduate enrollment, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The drop was 0.2 percent at public four-year universities in that period, but at public two-year colleges, where a large share of Latinos enroll, the numbers fell 15.7 percent, according to the clearinghouse.

Santiago said Latino enrollment drops continue in 2022.

That contrasts with recent years, during which Latinos had been increasing their enrollment in higher education. It had been a hopeful sign for closing education gaps.

“Because Hispanics have been projected to be the primary growth population in higher education through about 2030, to see this precipitous drop in Latino enrollment in one year really creates an urgency for us to revisit our focus on access and retention of students,” Santiago said.

HSIs are 18 percent of colleges and universities and enroll 66 percent of the nation's Latino undergraduates, according to Excelencia in Education.

The coronavirus disproportionately sickened, hospitalized and killed Latinos.

Latinos were vulnerable because a large share work in what are considered “essential jobs” and could not work from home. In 2020, Latinos also saw staggering unemployment, although that has since improved.

For some students, the toll the pandemic took on wage earners in the family shifted the responsibility to them to bring income home or made attending a college or university unaffordable.

Some students told Excelencia they left school to avoid putting elderly family members with whom they lived at risk.

“Most Latino students go to college in the state in which they live and over a third live at home anyway, and familial responsibility and the ability to support was a factor,” Santiago said.

“The tradeoffs between work and education are very real for a lot of these students,” she said.

Although Latino enrollment in colleges and universities has been increasing, Hispanics remain underrepresented and lag behind whites in graduating and earning higher education degrees.

The decline in HSIs means “we are going to have to redouble our effort” to raise the numbers and serve the community, Santiago said.

Congress took some action in the 2022 fiscal year spending bill that it passed last week. It provided $183 million for HSIs, up $34 million from what was provided in 2021, according to the office of Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-California, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee.

The parent organization of a few of the schools that closed, Center for Excellence in Higher Education, shuttered amid accreditation issues.

Excelencia in Education has worked for years to improve Latino enrollment, graduation and degree earning by tracking universities on the verge of becoming HSIs. The group calls for investment and policies to assist growing the number of Latino university and college graduates. It also works to promote more interest among universities and colleges for serving Latino students.

The organization created a “Seal of Excelencia” that institutions can apply for by showing they have in place policies and programs that not only seek to boost Latino enrollment, but also “intentionally” serve Latino students.

Some universities and colleges apply for the seal before reaching HSI status. There are 24 institutions that have earned the seal.

To keep track of Latino enrollment growth, Excelencia monitors what it tagged “emerging HSIs” — universities and colleges with undergraduate enrollments that are 15 percent to 24 percent Latino. The number of emerging HSIs rose by 30 to 393.

Santiago said her group plans to hold a webinar March 24 with education officials to discuss what some HSIs and other universities and colleges are doing to keep Latinos enrolled.

“We really want the conversation to be about action,” she said.

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