Association of American Geographers
About AAG Membership Annual Meeting Projects & Programs Education Publications Calendar Of Events Jobs & Careers


Partnering with Hispanic-Serving Institutions: It's All About Place and Relationship


About HSIs

Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) are a dynamic and growing diverse set of institutions. They could be considered the best understood and yet the least understood of the three major minority-serving institutions (MSIs), HSIs, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs). HSIs are least understood because most think of an MSI as being like an HBCU, an institution of higher education (IHE) historically established to serve a particular minority group; in the case of HBCUs, African Americans. Except for three and the special case of those established on the island of Puerto Rico, HSIs were not established to serve Hispanics. Unlike HBCUs and TCUs, HSIs generally do not mention serving Hispanics in their mission statements. HSIs are only defined statistically by the proportion of Hispanics enrolled. Any non-profit, public or private college or university with an Hispanic student enrollment of 25% or more is an HSI. Consequently, they are IHEs that have evolved into being HSIs. Most faculty, administrators and staff at HSIs are not Hispanic, and many may be unaware of their institutional status. To be officially recognized as an HSI, the institution must apply for the designation with the Department of Education each year. However, formal recognition is not required to become a member of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) who represents HSIs, and other IHEs, to promote their development in order to improve access and quality of higher educational opportunities for Hispanics. HSIs are the best understood MSI because they could be any institution, including yours.

HSIs are diverse not only in their student population, but also in the composition of institutions. Some, a good number, particularly in Texas and Puerto Rico, are predominately Hispanic (greater than 50%) in their student enrollment, but many are between 25% and 50%. Most are public with some private institutions currently located in or near high population concentrations of Hispanics, so, like Geography, place is important, but not all defining. There is about an equal number of four-year institutions and two-year community colleges. Most four-year HSIs are regional teaching institutions, baccalaureate and Master’s colleges and universities. About eight are doctoral/research institutions. There are six high research institutions (Florida International University, New Mexico State University, San Diego State University, University of Texas at El Paso, University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras). Only two are among the slightly more than 100 very high research institutions, University of California, Riverside, and the University of New Mexico. There are even two medical institutions that are HSIs, the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and the University of Puerto Rico-Medical Sciences. None, to date, however, are members of the invitational American Association of Universities (AAU) that represent an elite set of research institutions. Keep in mind that these classifications can change because both the Carnegie and HSI classifications change, and AAU may extend a membership invitation, as institutions change. For example, the newly formed University of California, Merced, is an HSI, but has yet to be rated by Carnegie Classification, and the University of Miami, a very high research institution for some time, borders in and out of being an HSI year by year. Geographically, HSIs are concentrated in California, Texas and the U.S. Territorial island of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, but may be found in 12 other states across the country, New Mexico, Florida, Arizona, New York, Colorado, New Jersey, Illinois, Kansas, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania .

HSIs have grown significantly since the concept was introduced in the mid-1980’s along with the growth and development of the Hispanic American population, particularly since the Civil Rights Movement. HACU, the primary national association of HSIs often credited with the establishment of the Federal recognition of HSIs in 1992, was formed in 1986 with 18 members. There are now well more than 200 HSI members.


Hispanics in the US

Much of the popular press today focuses on Hispanics as a recent immigrant group, but Hispanics have a long history and presence in the U.S. They have been part of the U.S. population even before the annexation of the Republic of Texas in 1845, sparking the Mexican American War of 1846-48 and the expansion of the U.S. to include California and the Southwest, going back at least as far as Spain ceding Florida to the U.S. in 1821. Puerto Rico was surrendered to the U.S., along with Guam and the Philippines, and Cuba was occupied by the U.S., as part of the end of the Spanish American War of 1898. The migration of people from other parts of the U.S. into the Southwest and Florida greatly altered population demographics and structural relationships of these states and the U.S.; particularly former slaves into Florida before and following the Revolutionary War, Southerners into Florida and into Texas before and following Texas’ independence from Mexico in 1836 and eventual annexation to the U.S., the settlement of Mormons in Utah during and following the Mexican American War, following the discovery of gold in California in 1850, as well as the more recent large migration following World War II. Just as the Hispanic population demographics were established and altered by pre-Mexican American War settlements, emigration from neighboring Mexico, Cuba, Dominican Republic and other Latin American countries, and migration between Puerto Rico and the mainland. Immigration to the U.S. surged with war and violence in the home country, such as the Mexican Revolution, the Cuban Revolution, and the internal wars in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, as well as with the more recent opportunity for jobs, particularly since 1970 and the Civil Rights Movement. Of equal or greater importance to the present and future of the country are the native-born Hispanics of 2nd, 3rd, 4th or greater generation (about 64% of Hispanics). Some research since the 1960’s indicates that the native-born 2nd generation, sons and daughters of immigrants (about 31% of Hispanics), may do collectively better not only to foreign-born 1st generation immigrants, but sometimes even compared to the following generations. The current relatively large population of 2nd generation (or greater) Hispanics will greatly impact higher education as it has and will Pre-K - 12 education, and possibly impact the discipline of Geography.

Presently, Hispanics are the largest and one of the fastest growing minorities in the nation. At 52.04 million people in 2011 (excluding Puerto Rico), they are 16.7% of the total U.S. population, a 3.1% increase over the previous year compared to the overall U.S. population increase of only 0.92%. Hispanics are projected to be 132.79 million, 30.25% of the population by 2050. They are large proportions of the two largest states in the country, 38.1% of both California and Texas. To put their size in perspective, the 14.36 million Hispanics in California alone are more numerous than the population of all but four (4) states, California, Texas, New York and Florida; larger than Illinois at 12.87 million, or Pennsylvania, Ohio, or Michigan, the next most populous states. Again the Hispanics in California alone are larger than the countries of Guatemala, Cuba, Portugal, Greece, Bolivia, Sweden, Honduras, Switzerland, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Ireland and many more. The combined 24.15 million Hispanics in California and Texas are more populous than all states, except for these two largest, and nearly the population of Texas, 25.67 million. The total U.S. Hispanic population is larger than the population of 25 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia combined (51.39 million combined). Internationally, the Hispanic American population is larger than any Latin American country, except Brazil (199.32 million) and Mexico (114.97 million), much larger than Canada (34.3 million), and larger than Spain (47.04 million). It would rank about 25th among the most populous countries in the world; out of the more than 200 countries. Hispanics are a large, racially and ethnically diverse and growing population in the nation, and on college campuses, in raw numbers and proportionately, in dire need of higher education for their sake and that of the nation.

As the Hispanic population continues to grow, so does their presence on college campuses. Hispanics are now the largest minority group on the nation’s campuses. HSIs play a major role in higher education of Hispanics enrolling about half of all Hispanic college students. This large proportion of Hispanics at HSIs would be expected given that the definition of HSI is based on the proportion of Hispanics enrolled, and is not a fixed number of campuses. They are also a relatively small number of campuses out of the thousands of colleges and universities in the country, less than 10%. This would make HSIs an efficient mechanism for reaching Hispanic students.


Hispanics in Higher Education

Despite their long presence in the U.S. and growing presence on college campuses, Hispanics are still very lacking in college attainment. In 2011 numbers, only 14.1% of all Hispanics 25 years old and over have obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher. This compares unfavorably, by more than half, to the college attainment of the total U.S. population as a whole, 30.4%. It is yet more unfavorable to non-Hispanic whites, 34.0%, and lower than that of African Americans, 19.9%. Disaggregating U.S. Hispanics, we see college attainment at 9.9% for Mexicans, 18.0% for Puerto Ricans, 26.8% for Cubans, 10.6% for Central Americans, 31.7% for South Americans, and 22.4% for other Hispanics in the U.S., with gender variations of about 1% lower for males and higher for females; except for Cubans with 30.1% for males and 23.7% for females. There is yet much work to be done, and great opportunity for growth. For Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), it is all about place and relationships. For the most part, students at HSIs have chosen to stay close to home to go to college, particularly Hispanic students. A dominate reason for this choice is family and community relationships, as well as a lack of familiarity with what opportunities exist elsewhere. A strong factor in college success for students who have a strong sense of place is the degree to which they are able to connect with the community of faculty and students of their adoptive “home institution” and through that connection acquire a sense of belonging. Of course, it isn’t only at HSIs that this connection is possible for Hispanic students – any higher education institution that is willing to provide a welcoming supportive learning environment may achieve high student success rates among their Hispanic student populations.


Benefits of Working with HSIs and Relevance to Geography

As is true for many aspects of science and education today, collaboration provides an assortment of research, teaching and learning opportunities for an individual researcher, for building the capacity of her or his institution, and for the lives of their students.

Hispanics are a significant and growing proportion of our nation’s people, larger than the combined population of half of the states in the union, truly the size of a country within a country. They have had a long and difficult history in the U.S. The vast majority are native-born U.S. citizens despite the current dominating concern with Hispanic immigration for the general population. They are young; continuing to impact Pre-K through high school education, and, particularly since the late ‘60s, college campuses. Although there are still problems, great progress has been made; often, unfortunately, only to be overshadowed by the persistent divide. For example, Hispanics have increased college attainment from 4.2% in 1970 to 14.1% today, but in the same time frame college attainment also has increased for the overall nation from 13.5% in 1970 to 30.4%. They are now the largest minority group among college students, and their presence on university campuses is only expected to grow. About half are concentrated at HSIs who are also growing in number and presence across the country. Therefore, HSIs provide an efficient mechanism for reaching out to Hispanics, and may be potential ripe for meaningful partnerships.

Geography needs Hispanics, and Hispanics could greatly benefit from Geography. Any discipline, including Geography, that intends to thrive in the foreseeable future of higher education must make a concerted effort to bring Hispanics into the field. This is especially true in these tight budget times where majors and departments with small numbers are being consolidated with other fields or shutdown altogether. In like vein, Hispanics, and those concerned about Hispanics, need the perspective, methodology and understanding of the world that Geography brings to make sense of the current situation and to make the world a better place for themselves and for their neighbors.

Research partnerships

The innovative Geographical study of Hispanics, and possibly the development and growth of Hispanic-serving Institutions, is a worthwhile endeavor in and of itself. This could prove a fruitful field of study for a freshly started Geographer or for one more seasoned and looking for new topics to explore. Partnerships among researchers at HSI and non-HSI institutions may provide perspectives and data not otherwise available.

The diversity of thought and perspective that Hispanic researchers and other researchers at HSIs bring to Geography can help Geography grow as an intellectual enterprise. Because of a natural affinity, the Geographical study of Hispanics may be of considerable interest to Hispanic Geographers or other Geographers or related scientists at HSIs. This in itself helps to develop the field of Geography. But, partnerships with Hispanic or non-Hispanic researchers at HSIs or other institutions, can bring a whole new light to the issue, and a new source of creativity. The diversity of thought and perspective from such partnerships can bring a surge of innovation to not only the study of Hispanics and HSIs, but to most any other area of interest in Geography. Through the intellectual diversity Hispanics and other researchers at HSIs can bring to other group and individual research endeavors in partnerships focused on new and old problems can help renew the broad discipline of Geography.

Research partnerships with Hispanic and other researchers at HSIs can extend beyond the faculty level down to the student level growing the numbers of Geography majors at all the institutions involved. Depending upon the institutions, this can be done at the graduate level through the inclusion of Hispanic and non-Hispanic Ph.D. or Master’s level students at the HSI and non-HSI institution. Since there are many more Master’s level HSIs than Doctoral level HSIs, the partnering of these institutions with non-HSI Doctoral research institutions can help increase the number of Hispanic Master’s students going on to a Ph.D. and the professoriate. This includes a good way for the Doctoral institution to recruit Hispanic students. Such a partnership can also give a boost in the recruitment of students to the Master’s program as well, and provide students an experience affirming their abilities and opening new opportunities to them.

At the undergraduate level, partnering with an HSI to help provide Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) at both the HSI and non-HSI can open a new career pathway for Hispanic undergraduates. Collaborating with the HSI to develop a proposal to seek NSF funding for a formal REU can be a good way to initiate a long-term partnership. The proposal development activity provides a concrete task and goal to accomplish and to measure success, even if unsuccessful on the first try, provided they continue refining the proposal and resubmitting. Once successful in finding support, the REU project should have concrete tasks, clearly assigned responsibilities and indicators of success or points in need of improvement. The REU can provide a great Hispanic recruitment tool for the Doctoral institution. It also provides the undergraduate HSI institution a measure of its quality in the number of students going on to Ph.D. or Master’s programs. The research experience not only helps the student to enter a Ph.D. or Master’s program, but more immediately, it also increases the likelihood that the student will persist to graduation and a baccalaureate degree. This helps a serious problem of retention at HSIs, and helps the HSI’s graduation rates.

Even further down the Geography career pathway, research experiences designed for undergraduates at the freshmen and sophomore level also can help Hispanic student persistence to graduation. They also can be an assist for Hispanic HSI community college students to more seriously consider and take concrete steps to transfer to a four-year institution. The four-year institution partnering with the HSI community college, in this case, could be either another HSI or a non-HSI seeking to increase their Geography majors, and provide students an exciting career pathway they may not have otherwise considered. Too many Hispanics start at community college and never complete an AA degree or transfer to a baccalaureate degree program even though when they started that was their expressed intent. There are many factors that enter into this outcome, but sometimes having clear career goals, an understanding of how to achieve them, and the self-knowledge that one actually has the ability to succeed, may play some of the factors. REUs at this level can be hard work, but can also be rewarding for the student, the institutions and the Geography departments or programs involved.

At any level, REU programs with students from multiple institutions provide students with a cultural diversity experience in a career setting that goes well beyond what either campus may be able to provide to their students.

Educational collaborations

Similarly, educational collaborations may also be of benefit to the students, HSIs and other institutions involved. Sharing or co-teaching classes or collaborating at a distance may be ways to build or strengthen a program’s offerings. They may also be ways for helping to ensure the continued existence of a program or major, or provide a program or major at an institution where it would otherwise be unfeasible.

Pooling the costs, teaching expertise and the sharing or co-teaching of courses across institutions may make a Geography major viable at an HSI or partnering non-HSI or both where there is presently insufficient demand by students at any one of the institutions. Such pooling of costs, faculty and students can help justify the establishment or continued existence of Geography as a major to local or state administrators and governing boards. These partnerships can be difficult to arrange and coordinate, but can mean the difference from Geography existing at one or all the institutions.

Sharing or co-teaching core courses required for graduation can help prevent such courses from not being available when the student needs them. They may also provide more simultaneous offerings of required courses to help meet the demand. Meeting such demand may keep students from being closed out and having to wait another term or year prolonging their graduation. Prolonged time to graduation is of increasing concern to state and federal legislatures concerned with the cost of a college degree.

Sharing or co-teaching advanced courses that may not attract sufficient students at any one institution can help broaden the Geography major offerings available to students at all the institutions involved. Such offerings are often the most fulfilling to the student because they help customize the major to fit the student’s career plans and interests.

Collaborating to offer a pre-introduction to Geography course, Geography 000, could be one way of recruiting Hispanics and growing the major. Such a collaboration would be very helpful with an HSI community college where Geography as a major is not available or is not seen or promoted as a major to enter upon transferring. This is a course where students can be exposed to the many and varied careers and activities in which Geography majors can be engaged. It can help students get a better handle on such a diverse field as Geography, and possibly find that career goal that can help motivate them to enter or stay in the major, graduate, and go on to Bachelor’s or advanced degrees and/or fulfilling careers of benefit to their communities. They can also help students more quickly become lightly engaged in some of the more relevant and fun activities helping them to see how Geography can be a useful and exciting field and career. It can also help promote and smooth the transition from the community college to the partnering institution.


Inter-institutional Relationship Building

A successful relationship with an HSI must be meaningful, purposeful, and mutually beneficial. Meaningful relationships take time and commitment and often encounter challenges along the way. Big or small challenges can end or at least limit the growth of a relationship, but if properly addressed will help develop a stronger foundation for the partnership. When institutions (or departments) pursue a mutually agreed-upon set of goals with clear benefits for all parties, the institutional commitment will be firm enough to overcome most obstacles, providing the relationship a chance to grow and mature.

You may want to start by examining what is important to you and your institution and how a relationship with an HSI might enhance your work or that of your institution. It may be that you simply want to further the progress of geography as a scientific discipline, and want it to grow in numbers of geographers, the quality of their work and scope of application of the discipline. Diversity in people who bring with them diversity in thought and perspective is an important way to achieve these goals. HSIs provide excellent vehicles for achieving both demographic and intellectual diversity. You may find upon examination of your institution's predominate service area or the enrollment trends at your campus or nearby community colleges that Hispanics are growing in number and that your institution may be on the way to becoming an HSI. Relationships with other HSIs will help your department and institution grow in ways that facilitate success both for you and your current and future Hispanic students. It may be that your research in biogeography could be enhanced by a research and instructional relationship with an HSI in a rural and remote location or your work in urban geography could be broadened by partnering with faculty in related fields at an HSI in a nearby or distant urban setting. Involving students at these institutions in your research can broaden the scope of your research and establishes a pathway for transfer or graduate students to your institution.

After some thoughtful reflection, draft a concept paper of the benefits and goals of an inter-institutional relationship from both your perspective and what you might think would be of benefit to the HSI. Describe how you would want to proceed. Keep in mind that you are building a relationship so the concept paper should be merely a conversation starter. You may be surprised to see where the conversation may lead you.


Recommendations for initiating and building relationships with TCUs and HSIs

1. Look at the list of HSIs at the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) website,, to explore those close to you. Not all the HSIs are members of HACU so you may want to look at the Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics College Navigator site, to look at the enrollment statistics for colleges, particularly community colleges near you. The College Navigator site also lists the programs and majors available at the institution. While there you might look at your enrollment statistics from a few years ago and then check with your office of institutional research for your current numbers to see if your institution may be heading toward HSI status.

2. To explore the HSI community and to let HSI administrators or faculty know about your program, you may wish to attend the HACU Annual Conference, or present a talk or secure an information booth at the conference. Presentations are competitive and an application and abstract must be submitted for consideration. Booth space frequently sells out so look into purchasing early in the year. The conference is a good way to meet and connect with HSI administrators and some faculty and a few students. There is a student track at the conference for undergraduates. Additionally, if you are interested in meeting or recruiting large numbers of Hispanic or Native American students, you may wish to attend, present or purchase a booth at the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans (SACNAS) National Conference.

3. Once you have identified your goals and possible partners, allow time to build the relationship. Allow a fair amount of time to discuss and clarify your mutual goals and ways of achieving them with your partners. You should establish clear goals as well as the distribution of roles and responsibilities. These should be incorporated into a modified and now jointly-developed concept paper. You may be particularly interested in transfer students, in which case establishing or updating articulation agreements between the institutions and between the departments may be in order. In doing this you may also wish to establish means for recruiting or engaging students, such as, forming student organizations, co-teaching classes either in-person or remotely, participating in recruitment events or career days, or counseling procedures for helping students work up academic and career plans with specific courses, transfer procedures, career or graduate school options, and contingency plans that provide students strategies for persisting when problems arise. For co-teaching courses, you may consider incorporating a geography lecture or two to an existing biology, geology or sociology course. For students who may need help in goal clarification, academic and career paths, accessing academic or non-academic assistance or counseling, it’s a good idea for both campuses to coordinate their student support services, registrars and other support offices.

Help the student develop an academic plan for completing at the HSI with a two year degree, transferring to your four-year institution to complete a 4 year degree and post-graduate options of graduate school and/or job prospects. A well thought-out academic plan will help to ensure transfer, which may sometimes entail conditional acceptance if particular courses are taken and passed at a specified level. Many of the students are just learning the process of setting goals, making plans to achieve them, and executing the plan with occasional recourse to contingency plans when problems are encountered along the way. Support at all stages of this process can be critical to student success.

You may be more interested in research partnerships. Of course, it takes time and persistence to find a suitable research partner. It may be the case that you would only work with the faculty member to engage students in research activities. You may wish to collaborate with the partner faculty member on a joint research or educational grant proposal. Grant proposals help to provide a focus for your collaboration, and hopefully project funding. It is better to engage the partner well in advance, perhaps a year or more before a proposal submission deadline, so the plan of work is well-developed, roles and responsibilities are well defined, and the time-line is realistic and agreed to by both parties. This generally means identifying a suitable grant program, and then working toward a submission in the following year. As grants are increasingly competitive, expect to be declined upon initial submission and to work an additional year for a successful submission, using the reviewers’ comments to fine-tune your project. Many HSIs have small research or sponsored programs offices with limited experience in administering multi-institutional grant projects. It is important to make sure that everyone involved with grant administration from both institutions is communicating and aware of all grant management and compliance requirements. This may require additional support from your research grant office so they should be made aware and included in the discussions well before submission and immediately post-award.

4. Expect a lot of work dedicated to achieving understandings and building the relationship. Even with this upfront work, expect misunderstandings and commit to working through them and strengthening the relationship.

5. Continually explore new options and new directions for the relationship while building the infrastructure and institutionalization of established components to sustain what works and find new and better ways of mutual individual and institutional development.

6. Collect meaningful data about activity outcomes and about the relationship not only for program evaluation purposes, but to grow a deeper understanding about what programmatically works and about institutional and professional relationships.

7. Publish your results and share your experiences at conferences to grow the body of literature about institutional relationships and about activities that work toward student success. This can be another concrete professional benefit and reward from the collaboration, especially if you involve students in the publication or in making presentations locally or at SACNAS, HACU or other professional national conferences. It also requires that you purposefully and seriously reflect upon the experience and relationship.


Credit and thanks to Alex Ramirez, formerly of HACU