Hispanic Higher Education Coalition: Early Advocates of Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) Legislation

Patrick L. Valdez, PhD
Dean of the Undergraduate College and Associate Professor of Education  
College of Mount Saint Vincent

This blog is intended to celebrate a coalition of Latino trailblazers whose members, most of them young in their careers, faced congressional giants to develop and execute a policy strategy aimed at increasing federal funding to higher education institutions serving Latino students. 37 years ago this month, March 1979, through a convergence of a growing Latino population and the arrival (in DC) of a generation of Latinos who had benefited from higher education opportunities in the 1960s and early 1970s, a Latino higher education vanguard entered the federal higher education policy arena. This vanguard is recorded in the annals of congressional history as the Hispanic Higher Education Coalition (HHEC) (Valdez, 2015), a coalition of major Latino advocacy groups that coalesced in Washington DC in the fall of 1978 to advocate for the expansion of Title III that ultimately led to the Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) designation in 1992. The HHEC comprised members of ASPIRA of America, El Congreso Nacional de Asuntos Colegiales (CONAC), League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund (MALDEF), National Association for Equal Educational Opportunities, National Council de La Raza (NCLR), Puerto Rican Legal Defense & Education Fund (PRLDEF), Inc., and U.S. Catholic Conference. While Latino civic groups had advocated before Congress on broad-based issues impacting the Latino community prior to 1979, the HHEC provided coalition support for what had been largely individual group advocacy.

HHEC testimony in 1979 was the first concerted effort to increase Title III institutional aid to colleges serving large numbers of Latino students, identified then as "Hispanic Institutions." The majority of these institutions were located in Puerto Rico at the time, but a few, like Hostos Community College in New York's South Bronx, were built in the U.S. with a mission to provide higher education opportunities to Latino students. While Congress did not adopt the HHEC’s recommendations in 1979, this focused effort laid the foundation for the Hispanic Access to Higher Education Hearings in 1982. This resulted in the first legislative HEA amendment to include “any institution of higher education which has an enrollment of which at least 20 percent are Mexican American, Puerto Rican, Cuban, or other Hispanic students or thereof” as eligible for Title III funding (Higher Education Amendments, 1986). That same year (1986), the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) was founded in San Antonio, Texas, and the baton of advocacy was passed from a coalition of Latino-based organizations to an organization comprised of higher education institutions. In 1992, HACU coined the phrase Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) and Congress increased the 20 percent threshold to 25 percent and added the HSI designation to Title III. The rest, as they say, is history. Yet it is a history that has excluded the work of the HHEC. Extant literature on HSIs focus on the post-1992 era and the work of HACU---leaving little to be known about the HHEC; a coalition that evolved as part strategy, part organic, involving members who were smart and committed to increasing postsecondary opportunities to Latino students.

But why is important that we understand HSI policy formation and look back to the advocacy of the HHEC? One reason is that it informs us that HSI legislation was created with the intent to support under-resourced institutions serving Latino students, drawing a clear distinction between Title IV funding that supports and follows the student not the institution. Another reason is that research suggests that an institutional designation based on a percentage threshold was a strategy that the HHEC, and subsequently HACU, believed (1) would distribute funding to a greater number of colleges serving Latinos across the United States and (2) could win out in Congress. With current HACU membership consisting of over 270 institutions, it appears they were correct. Yet should the current 25 percent Latino student enrollment threshold be enough to label a college or university as an HSI? I posit that understanding the formation of HSI legislation provides greater context to that question, and it compels and obligates us to continue asking that question. Lastly, and most importantly, looking back at the advocacy efforts of the HHEC allows us to honor those who came before us. As stated by one HHEC advocate, “the Congress acts on what citizens bring to them and it rarely gets documented; but we [Latinos] need to have the same history of record . . . so that generations later will know who the pathfinders were when there was no course charted, when there was no road to be followed” (HHEC Advocate, personal communication, March 28, 2012). This blog is intended to encourage more research on the policy formation of HSI legislation, encourage more research on what it means to be an HSI, and remind us that higher education “equity for Latinos has never been freely given” (Rendón, 2015, p. 4).

Dr. Patrick Valdez has held executive-level positions at several HSIs and higher education associations. Currently, he is the Dean of the Undergraduate College and Associate Professor of Education at the College of Mount Saint Vincent. His research focuses on HSI policy formation and the role HSIs play in educating the nation’s fastest growing student population.


     Rendón, L. I. (2015). Introduction. In Mendez, J.P., Bonner II, F.A., Méndez-Negrete, J., & Palmer, R.T. (Eds.). Hispanic Serving Institutions in American higher education: Their origin, and present and future Challenges (1-4). Virginia: Stylus.

     Valdez, P. L. (2015). An overview of Hispanic-Serving Institutions’ legislation: Legislation policy formation between 1979 and 1992. In Mendez, J.P., Bonner II, F.A., Méndez-Negrete, J., & Palmer, R.T. (Eds.). Hispanic Serving Institutions in American higher education: Their origin, and present and future Challenges (5-29). Virginia: Stylus.