The Floor or the Ceiling

Administration October 2023 PREMIUM

Hispanic Serving Institutions at Different Points

By Marialexia Zaragoza

Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) have gained increasing attention from scholars, practitioners, and students alike. In 2021, there were 572 higher education institutions officially designated as HSIs, with a diverse range of institutional types represented. Among these, the majority, 226, were two-year public institutions, followed by 172 four-year private institutions and 165 four-year public institutions, as reported by the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) (2023). Amidst the growing interest in HSIs, there exists an increasingly urgent need to gain a comprehensive understanding of how these institutions function and the ways in which they fulfill their mission to serve their students. This article aims to challenge the existing ideas of what makes an HSI a “Top HSI” and explore how emerging Hispanic Serving Institutions (eHSI) are working towards obtaining their HSI designation.

Reimagining What it Means to be an HSI

Given the growing rate of Latinx/Hispanic students in higher education, it is no surprise that there is an increase in HSIs (Excelencia in Education, 2023). However, it is essential to recognize that not all HSIs are alike in their approach, student services, funding levels, or educational objectives. This diversity among HSIs makes it challenging to establish a clear ranking that can determine which institutions excel in serving Latinx/Hispanic students. However, the concept of a “Top HSI” remains subjective and multifaceted, open to interpretation depending on who you ask and the specific institution in question. Some may view a “Top HSI” as one that excels in graduating Latinx/Hispanic students, while others may emphasize retention rates or enrollment numbers. Traditional measures used to determine the success of an HSI include student enrollment and graduation rates, but even using these metrics can be complicated due to the diversity in institutional type (Garcia, 2017). 

Marialexia argues that a “Top HSI” is an institution actively dedicated to advancing all minoritized students toward their educational goals, whether those goals involve earning terminal degrees, entering the workforce, or transferring to other institutions. Such institutions also prioritize the empowerment and liberation of their students through critical pedagogy. While enrollment and graduation statistics are important metrics, they alone cannot determine what makes a “Top HSI.” It is important for HSIs to foster their students’ cultural/racial/ethnic identity and critical consciousness, amongst other outcomes that influence a student’s experience at an HSI, which Garcia (2021) names liberatory outcomes. This viewpoint is shared by several prominent scholars in the field, including Gina Garcia, Marcella Cuellar, and Marla Franco. HSIs must learn to value the traditional academic outcomes while pushing for the liberatory outcomes to be equally or more important on campus to be a “Top HSI.”

Emerging HSIs

Within the realm of HSIs, it’s crucial to acknowledge both the established HSIs and the emerging HSIs (eHSIs). As per HACU’s data from the 2021-2022 academic year, there were 400 eHSIs, characterized by Latinx/Hispanic student enrollment ranging from 15% to 24.9% (2023). eHSIs have much to gain by examining the practices of current HSIs as they strive toward official designation. This involves not only studying HSI programming and pedagogy but also recognizing the importance of understanding student perspectives regarding what it truly means to be an HSI. Student input is integral to the mission of higher education institutions.

Conversely, current HSIs can also benefit from eHSIs. It’s less frequently discussed that eHSIs, while on their journey to official designation, often display a deep commitment to their Latinx communities that sometimes surpasses that of already designated HSIs. This commitment is often evident through the establishment of HSI centers and departments dedicated to ensuring HSI initiatives permeate all aspects of campus life. This observation serves as a call for reflection and action among current HSIs, pushing them to reevaluate their approaches and practices. The challenge is to move beyond focusing solely on quantitative metrics like graduation and enrollment rates and delve into a more profound examination of their identity as HSIs. It involves scrutinizing their pedagogical methods, support structures, and holistic engagement with their student populations.

In summary, HSIs are dynamic hubs filled with faculty, staff, and students dedicated to embodying the essence of a “Top HSI” and serving their communities. They are environments where minds are shaped and liberated simultaneously. HSIs must persistently strive to reach the status of a “Top HSI” because this label should not represent a limit but rather an ongoing aspiration and commitment to continually enhance their service to their students and communities. HSIs are here and making impactful moves. Marialexia looks forward to what HSIs will work towards in the future. 

A Shared Lens

Marialexia Zaragoza, a first-generation college student and a product of a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), attributes her academic success and burgeoning interest in HSI research to her formative experiences as an undergraduate student. She fondly recalls the impactful faculty mentors who not only supported her educational journey but also empowered her to discover her academic identity and delve into the realm of social science research. Being part of an HSI environment allowed Marialexia to immerse herself in a community of students and faculty who shared her background and culture, fostering a sense of belonging through various cultural programs and student organizations. Simultaneously, her time at an HSI also nurtured her critical perspective regarding the institutions that create such spaces. Recognizing that her experiences at one HSI were unique and not universally shared across all HSIs ignited her curiosity and research career, fueling her ongoing exploration of HSI dynamics and their impact on students. Marialexia’s experience at an HSI is an example of how HSIs can foster a student’s identity and liberation on campus while also creating a sense of criticality used to study the same institutions. 


Garcia, G. A. (2017). Defined by outcomes or culture? Constructing an organizational identity for Hispanic-serving institutions. American Educational Research Journal, 54(1_suppl), 111S-134S.

Garcia, G. A. (2021). A love letter to HSI grant seekers/implementers and the federal agencies that fund them: Defining servingness in research, practice, & policy. Journal of the Alliance for Hispanic Serving Institution Educators, 1(1), 1-14.

Excelencia in Education. (2023). Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs): 2021-22. Washington, D.C.: Excelencia in Education.

Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. (2023). Hispanic Higher Education and Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs): 201-2022. HACU Office of Policy Analysis and Information. 

About the author

Marialexia Zaragoza is a first-generation college graduate and daughter of Mexican immigrant parents. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Higher Education at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research focuses on Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) and their role in serving Latinx students. Marialexia is also an AAHHE 2022-2023 GSFP alumni. 













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