ASU Joins Other Arizona Universities in Reaching 'Major Milestone' for Latino Students. Why It Matters

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Published June 21, 2022

By: Alison Steinbach and Daniel Gonzalez, Arizona Republic

When Deyanira Galaviz started as a first-year student at Arizona State University last fall, she felt lost on campus, one of the largest in the country.

She had questions about financial aid and tuition. And she was unhappy with her major, criminology.

But she was afraid to ask questions.

As the first person in her family ever to attend college, Galaviz, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, also couldn't turn to relatives for advice navigating the university's system as other students might.

"At first I was struggling because being a first gen student you are scared to ask for help because this is a whole new environment," Galaviz said.

Then in October, her academic advisor sent an email informing her of a campus group that pairs first-generation students like her with older student mentors.

Having a mentor made a huge difference. The mentor helped her overcome her fears and told her where to go to find answers. Galaviz got her financial questions cleared up. And she found a new major she loves, tourism development and special event management.

"I would say things are going great now," Galaviz said.

Galaviz's experiences highlight the challenge universities face in trying to increase the number of Latino students, who lag behind white students in earning degrees at a time when the Latino population is booming in the state. It takes work to get them to enroll. But sometimes it takes even more effort to place them on a path to academic success.

ASU officials hope the university's recent designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution will help accelerate those goals. Arizona's two other state universities already earned the designation, and are leveraging it to improve opportunities and outcomes for Latino students.

Designation opens up federal grants

In early June, ASU announced the U.S. Department of Education had designated it a Hispanic-Serving Institution. The recognition marks an enrollment milestone that university officials say will open the door to federal funding and help more Latino students graduate.

It also will allow for increased cooperation on the same goals with other schools in Arizona and nationally.

ASU is the last of the state's three public universities to receive the designation, which is given to colleges and universities where at least a quarter of undergraduate students identify as Latino.

The University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University received the recognition in 2018 and 2021, respectively.

UA has taken advantage of the status to help fund new programs. Since achieving the designation in 2018, the university has received over $10 million in federal grants following competitive applications, according to Marla Franco, UA's assistant vice provost for Hispanic Serving Institution Initiatives.

Earlier this year UA won a nearly $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to expand support for Hispanic and low-income student in science, technology, engineering and math fields. The Hispanic-Serving Institution designation made UA eligible for that. The same was true of a $3 million grant to fund a program for largely Hispanic and low-income high school students to take UA pre-calculus courses while in high school, which could later transfer for college credits.

While NAU as a whole just got the designation last year, the branch campus NAU-Yuma was marked as a Hispanic-Serving Institution in 2007, and about three-quarters of students there are Hispanic, according to officials.

NAU President José Luis Cruz Rivera said in a statement to The Arizona Republic that NAU-Yuma has showed how to use the designation to get additional resources, create student service programs and improve programming and facilities.

That campus has attracted nearly $11 million from opportunities with the Hispanic-Serving Institution designation, he said.

“We look forward to the university-wide designation at NAU providing that same opportunity to not only increase access to postsecondary education, but to address Arizona’s current achievement gaps and increase postsecondary attainment contributing to social and economic mobility for individuals and communities,” Cruz Rivera said.

And the Maricopa County Community College District, the largest community college system in the state, also has benefitted from the designation. The district has received at least $22 million in Hispanic-Serving Institution grants from the Department of Education since 2005, per a federal spending database. The total could be more since other federal agencies also have grant opportunities for those eligible institutions.

'A major milestone' for ASU

ASU's designation comes as Arizona's Latino population grows rapidly, yet Latino students lag behind white students in college attainment, which will pose a challenge for Arizona’s future economy and success. The pandemic also disproportionately disrupted the college plans of Latino students in Arizona.

Latino students make up nearly half of the 1.1 million K-12 students in Arizona. About 65% of Arizona's K-8 students are Latino. But fewer Latino students graduate from high school than white students and fewer still enroll in college.

ASU officials said the designation from the Department of Education recognizes the university's commitment to the diversity of its student population.

"It's a major milestone," said Nancy Gonzales, ASU's executive vice president and university provost.

ASU's Latino undergraduate enrollment climbed to 26% in fall 2021, exceeding for the first time the 25% threshold, and up from 19% a decade earlier. Overall Latino enrollment, including graduate and online students, was over 30,200 in the fall, compared with 12,200 in 2011.

ASU has worked for years to increase diversity among its students, Gonzales said.

"It provides recognition for our work," Gonzales said. "It gives us access to wonderful networks with other Hispanic-Serving Institutions and also access to other opportunities, to further our efforts to serve our Hispanic students."

She acknowledged, however, that the university has "a long way" to go before reaching parity with the state's large and fast-growing Latino population, which overall makes up about one-third of the state's population.

Education advocates agree the designation marks progress in the right direction but that more work is needed to enroll and graduate Latino students at two- and four-year colleges across the state.

“Enrollment is one thing; degree completion and success is the other,” said Paul Luna, president and CEO of Helios Education Foundation. “The celebration of the HSI designation is that it gives us an ability to focus and prioritize this huge opportunity we have as a state to embrace educating all of our students.”

Why ASU took 'a long time' to get here

The Hispanic-Serving Institution recognition follows years of ASU working with Hispanic communities across Arizona and provides a symbol to students and families, said Maria Anguiano, executive vice president of the Learning Enterprise. That arm of the university has programs for anyone not seeking a degree, including K-12 students.

“Sometimes universities can be scary for folks that have never engaged in universities. I know for myself as a first-generation student with my mom only having a sixth-grade education, she’s like, ‘Is this place for people like us?’ And so being a Hispanic-Serving Institution and being able to tell our community that, I think provides this level of comfort for families.”

Gonzales, the provost, said it took longer for ASU to achieve the HSI designation because it has the largest student population and therefore took more Latino students to reach the 25% threshold. The university also draws students from many other states, including states with lower shares of Latino students.

As of the fall of 2021, total on-campus undergraduate enrollment was about 64,700 students. Of those, nearly 17,000 students identified as Latino, or 26%, according to ASU data. White students made up the largest group, at 46%.

ASU President Michael Crow told the Board of Regents on June 9 that it took “a long time” to get to this point for Hispanic student enrollment given the university’s rapid growth overall.

“We have more than 30,000 students of Hispanic heritage in the institution, so it’s a fantastic turnaround for the university from its non-inclusive past,” Crow said.

Richard Daniel, executive vice president of Education Forward Arizona, experienced that trajectory firsthand. As a student at ASU in the 1980s, Daniel worked on a new peer mentoring program for minority students, and estimated at that time Latino students comprised maybe 3-5% of the student body. Over the years, ASU was intentional about recruiting and retaining Hispanic students and providing services for them on campus, he said.

“Bringing a student to a campus is so important, but providing the services for them to be successful is even more so,” Daniel said. “The actual experience on the campus and being able to provide those resources and those services and those programs are so important and vital for their success.”

Although it was the last university to get the designation, ASU has the largest Latino student enrollment of Arizona schools. UA and NAU have fewer Latino students overall, but both were already above the 25% threshold. ASU’s West and Downtown Phoenix campuses already had the recognition, too. Schools have to meet the eligibility each year.

Nationally, more than 500 institutions are classified as Hispanic serving, including 22 universities and community colleges in Arizona, according to a February count from Helios.

Luna said given that mass of schools with the designation, Arizona can be a model nationally for education success for Latino students. Already, Hispanic-Serving Institutions in the state have collaborated to share best practices, he said.

“Arizona’s not always historically positioned to be the lead when it comes to education outcomes and education success,” Luna said. “This is a really important designation and opportunity for our state to lead and to continue to emerge and show the country what it means to educate all students, and especially in Arizona with our demographics, our Latino students.”

A college degree is seen as key to opening the door to higher paying jobs and meeting the needs of the future economy, Gonzales said. A first-generation Latina student herself, Gonzales grew up in Miami, Arizona, and went to ASU.

"There are benefits to the students themselves who will create new opportunities for themselves and their future families," Gonzales said. "And it's a benefit to our state and the continuing economic development as we prepare our students to be able to enter into all the fields, that are that are needing college graduates."

The designation also allows Arizona universities to collaborate on national efforts to increase Hispanic representation in academia.

Twenty of the top research universities that are also Hispanic serving, including ASU and UA, formed an alliance earlier this month to double the number of Hispanic doctoral students at the universities and increase the number of Hispanic professors by 20% by 2030.

Latino students still lag their peers

While the focus starts on increasing the number of Latino students who enroll in college, more work is required to ensure they graduate, said Stephanie Parra, executive director of ALL In Education, an advocacy group that focuses on improving the academic success of Latino students in Arizona.

"If we aren't getting kids through college, we aren't closing the attainment gap ultimately," Parra said.

Latino students face unique challenges in completing college degrees, notably that many are the first people in their families to attend a university, she said. Many also come from lower-income backgrounds, so paying for college is even more difficult. At 19%, Latinos in Arizona have twice the poverty rate as non-Hispanic whites, at nearly 9.6%, according to U.S. Census data.

"Poverty doesn't end when a kid makes it to college. If anything, the burdens of poverty become more challenging and more difficult once they get to college," Parra said.

Luna from Helios said the designation shows Arizona’s education system is working to acknowledge the importance of how better to serve growing numbers of Latino students. The 25% enrollment threshold is important, but even more so is the commitment to ensuring students succeed, he said.

“Many of these students might come from different backgrounds, they come from a different culture, most likely it’s fair to say many are going to be first generation college students for their family,” he said.

But there’s still much more work to do, he said, with education equity gaps across the spectrum and grade levels, and with those gaps exacerbated by the pandemic.

Arizona still significantly lags the higher education attainment it needs for a strong future economy. And while enrollment rates have increased in recent years for Hispanic students, they still trail white students.

In 2020, just 46% of Arizona’s high school graduates enrolled in any two or four-year college, according to Arizona Board of Regents data.

The picture is worse when it comes to Arizona students completing four-year degrees. About 29% of white high school graduates complete four-year degrees, compared with about 12% of Hispanic high school graduates, per regents’ data.

Galaviz, the first-generation ASU student, said her older sister, Michelle, 34, is the one who really encouraged her to go to college and "get somewhere in life."

Michelle left high school to help take care of Galaviz when she was a child, while their mother worked low-wage jobs. When Galaviz was in 8th grade, she also joined ASU's Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program, which guides first-generation students get to college. Michelle was the one who participated in the program with her while their mother worked.

Galaviz said by earning a degree, she wants to pay back her sister and others who helped her get to college and "show them their sacrifices were for something good."