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A university's Latino enrollment reflects progress — and the legacy of racism

The University of Texas at Austin has enrolled enough Latinos to be considered a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a milestone both cheered and dismissed.
Image: Students leave after a class at University of Texas at Austin on Aug. 26, 2020.
A class at the University of Texas at Austin on Aug. 26.Jay Janner / Austin American-Statesman-USA Today Network

In a low-key announcement last fall, the University of Texas at Austin declared that it had reached a significant milestone. 

UT-Austin, which is in the state with the second-largest number of Latinos nationally, had finally enrolled enough full-time Latino undergraduates to be considered a Hispanic-Serving Institution, or HSI. 

UT-Austin’s full-time or equivalent undergraduate population was 26.1 percent Hispanic last fall. The threshold for the federal designation is at least 25 percent, and if it meets other federal criteria, the university can compete for grant money.

"Having the flagship university achieve HSI status is momentous, provided that it’s about equity and not just enrollment," said John Morán González, director of UT-Austin’s Center for Mexican American Studies.

Reaching the milestone is being simultaneously cheered and shrugged off. 

UT-Austin turns 128 years old this year, the year Hispanics in Texas are projected to outnumber whites to become Texas’ largest population group.

UT-Austin’s undergraduate population reached the HSI threshold despite the state’s long history of deliberately excluding Mexican Americans from higher education. 

However, because the Hispanic share of enrollment is nowhere near the Hispanic proportion of the state’s population overall, the HSI status is a jarring reminder of the opportunity — educational and economic — that Mexican Americans and other Latinos in the state have been denied and how far they have to go to catch up.

"What took them so long?" asked Al Kauffman, a civil rights lawyer who litigated landmark challenges to Texas’ systemic discrimination against Hispanics through its public school and higher education funding. 

"The population in public schools" in Texas "now is about 50 percent Latinx, so it’s time, and 25 percent is only halfway there," said Kauffman, a professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio.

Texas’ long history of racial discrimination 

Many people thought UT-Austin would never become an HSI because costs and admissions policies "have always been very significant for Latino families," said Luis Fraga, a University of Notre Dame political science professor who was on a commission for Hispanics’ educational excellence during the Obama administration.

"Historically it has not always been available for a lot of Latino students," he said.

UT-Austin and Texas A&M in College Station, the state’s other flagship institution, were established away from South Texas, where most Mexican Americans lived for many years. 

Their locations literally put higher education out of reach until the early ’90s, when the lawsuit LULAC v. Richards, argued by Kauffman, forced the state to put more higher education resources in a border region stretching from El Paso into southern and southeastern Texas.

Until 1971, San Antonio was the largest city in the U.S. without a four-year public university, according to research by Kauffman.

Since its beginnings, the state denied education opportunities to Mexican Americans through segregation in what were known as "Mexican schools" by steering students to vocational jobs rather than college, administering unfair testing, automatically admitting descendants of mostly white alumni and providing unequal funding to schools and colleges attended by Latinos, among other tactics. 

Mexican Americans and other Hispanics, including foreign students, were on the UT-Austin campus in the 1950s. There was some improvement in numbers over the years, but the share of Latino students remained small well into the ’70s and the ’80s.

The low numbers had implications for Hispanics' achievement of economic prosperity and positions of leadership and power. 

“It’s really been a loss of opportunity for people,” said Kauffman, who worked for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

S is for Serving — and getting to equity

HSIs were first funded in 1995, although they were included in the Higher Education Act three years earlier. They weren't created to serve a certain population, as Historically Black Colleges and Universities were; they are considered to have “developed” because of their proximity to Hispanic populations. 

González said Hispanic-Serving Institutions achieve equity through how they serve their Latino students, including support while in school and getting them to graduation. 

Other experts said that also means recognizing inequities and unfairness they have experienced that might contribute to their success or failure in higher education.

“It’s not simply about bodies in seats,” González said about reaching the HSI threshold. “It is about the institution ensuring those [students] thrive and succeed. It means providing the resources, financial, infrastructural and cultural resources, that they need to do that.”

That’s the gospel that Deborah Santiago, CEO and co-founder of Excelencia in Education, has preached for years. 

The organization has worked to accelerate Latino higher education achievement by measuring what institutions are doing not only to enroll but also, more importantly, to graduate Latino students. 

Although more Latinos are earning degrees, that’s not happening fast enough to close the gap with white students, Santiago said.

In fall 2020, UT-Austin’s four-year graduation rate for Hispanics was 64.3 percent, compared to 72.2 percent for all students. The 2020 four-year graduation rate for white students was 76.6 percent.

UT-Austin earned the Seal of Excelencia from Santiago's group in October, a certification the group has given to 14 HSIs out of 40 that have applied.

Those that earn the seal go through a rigorous application process, Santiago said. By earning the seal, UT-Austin made “a very public statement of embracing being intentional in serving Hispanic students,” she said. 

When it announced that it had earned the Seal of Excelencia, UT-Austin said it had expanded efforts to recruit Latino students, developed mentoring programs, done Latino community outreach that brings in families and developed programs to draw Latinos to specific disciplines.

“That’s not insignificant. ... They are a flagship. They are keeping their focus on students and what more they can do to ensure the students are supported at their institution,” Santiago said.

Rachelle Hernandez, the school's senior vice provost for enrollment management and student success, emphasized that UT-Austin is using Excelencia in Education’s framework as a model. 

Among other things, the framework calls for keeping accurate data on Latino students, hiring representative faculty members, providing financial support and ensuring that the university is articulating that it is “intentionally” serving Latino students.

Hernandez repeatedly said the efforts on behalf of Hispanic students are part of a broad effort to assist all students. 

“If we are focused on serving our Latinx students, our Hispanic students, our Latino students, then we are also focused on serving all of our students on campus,” Hernandez said. 

Almost two years ago, UT-Austin began a recruitment and retention effort, Hernandez said. The campuswide effort led to the creation of three committees, including the Hispanic Serving Institutional Transitional Committee, to guide the campus to HSI status. The other committees focused on recruiting and retaining Black students and on recruiting and retaining first-generation students, Hernandez said. 

“We’re excited that so many Hispanic students are interested in the University of Texas at Austin," she said, and "are excited to be joining other UT campuses who are also HSIs."

"And we're just, we're committed to recruiting top talent at Texas, and we've got a lot of really bright students across Texas,” she said. 

Treading lightly amid questions of race, history?

Alberto Martínez, a UT-Austin history professor, said that in meetings about becoming an HSI, officials expressed concern about how the milestone might be perceived, possibly through a partisan lens, as "in favor of minorities" or "some sort of ethnic favoritism" that might annoy Republicans, engender legal repercussions or leave non-Latinos feeling offended.

“Three years ago, when we had discussions about this at committee meetings, it was a sensitive issue,” said Martínez, whose research exposed that UT-Austin Latino faculty members are paid less than their white counterparts and that few hold leadership positions.

The university tucked the news about reaching HSI status into the ninth paragraph of a September news release that trumpeted its overall graduation rate and the size of its incoming class.

J.B. Bird, a university spokesman, said UT-Austin was “thrilled” to make it known that it had become an HSI and dismissed suggestions that it was cautious or hesitant about announcing the milestone.

He said that the university’s president, Jay Hartzell, participated in an HSI summit hosted by Excelencia in Education and that the university also briefed Texas lawmakers about its HSI status. 

“We talk about what starts here changes the world, and if we want to change the world, having early, young Latino students go through our university is absolutely critical,” Hartzell said at the online summit.

The announcement, however, came just three months after the social uprisings spurred by the murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer. 

During the summer, UT-Austin athletes demanded that the university remove symbols of racism and segregation on campus and called for better recruitment in inner cities and an end to use of its school song, “The Eyes of Texas,” which debuted in a minstrel show

Debate over the song drew outrage from wealthy alumni who told the administration in emails that they would pull donations if the song were eliminated.

The university is standing by the song after a university committee concluded that it wasn't overtly racist.

Hernandez wouldn’t discuss the HSI news in the context of the movement for social justice or redress of historical discrimination. But the resistance UT-Austin got from alumni is similar to challenges it has met as it has tried to diversify. 

In 1996, the Supreme Court refused to review the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Hopwood v. Texas, which struck down UT-Austin law school’s affirmative actions admissions. 

After the decision, the state passed a law granting automatic admission to its public universities for all Texas students who graduated in the top 10 percent of their classes. UT-Austin has since been permitted to drop that to the top 6 percent. 

A separate admissions process was created for the rest of the enrollment slots for students who didn’t finish at the top of their classes; race and ethnicity are among the factors that are considered. 

That was challenged in Fisher v. Texas, but UT-Austin prevailed. Another lawsuit is pending. 

The shadows of those challenges still linger over the university, but the state's growing Hispanic population made it nearly impossible for the share of UT-Austin's Latino enrollment not to grow.

In 2019, there were 3.8 million Texas Hispanics under 19 years old, according to Texas Demographic Center data.

To that end, the state’s success is directly connected with Hispanic students' enrollment and graduation, González said. 

“Hispanic youth have always been an integral part of the Texas workforce,” González said. “But they are poised to become a significant part of the professional workforce and the workforce of government policymaking as we get more Hispanic undergraduates, graduates from top-tier public institutions in Texas.”

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