What Are Hispanic-Serving Institutions?

Learn about the history of Hispanic-serving institutions and why their designation is important to Hispanic and Latino/a students' success.
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Hispanic-serving institutions educate a majority of Latino/a undergrads. But what is a Hispanic-serving institution, and why does the designation matter in higher education?

Among the nearly 4,000 colleges in the U.S., many serve historically excluded student populations. The federal government designates certain schools as Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs). These colleges serve diverse student bodies, including a large number of Latino/a undergraduates.

Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) are a type of MSI that play an important role in educating one of the fastest-growing racial and ethnic groups in the country. Two out of three Latino/a undergraduates attend an HSI. These institutions promote diversity while enhancing opportunities to serve students from diverse backgrounds. HSIs make up about 18% of U.S. colleges.

What Is a Hispanic-Serving Institution?

According to the U.S. Department of Education (ED), Hispanic and Latino/a students must make up at least 25% of the total student body for a school to earn the HSI designation. The ED looks at the number of students with full-time equivalent status to determine which schools meet the requirement.

Hispanic-serving institutions play an important role in higher education. Just as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) increase educational opportunities for Black students, HSIs increase opportunities for Latino/a students.

In 2020, HSIs could be found in more than half the states in the U.S. Across the country, more than 560 HSIs educate undergraduates at two-year and four-year institutions. About one-third of those HSIs are based in California, including 21 in the California State University system.

Most HSIs operate in urban areas and places with a high Latino/a population. Around 80% of all HSIs are located in California, Texas, Puerto Rico, New York, Florida, Illinois, and New Mexico.

The ED also recognizes more than 360 emerging HSIs. At these institutions, Hispanic students make up 15-24.9% of the student body.

The number of colleges designated as HSIs has grown dramatically in recent years. From 2009-2019, the number of colleges meeting the definition of an HSI skyrocketed by 93%. However, despite their increasingly important role in higher education, HSIs only officially date back to the 1990s.

The History of Hispanic-Serving Institutions

In 1976, Latino/a students made up just 4% of all college students. By 2019, that number grew to nearly 22% of college students. Today, Latino/a students rank as the second-largest ethnic group in higher education.

Historically, Latino/a students have enrolled at a lower rate than white, Black, or Asian students. They also graduate at lower rates than their white peers. HSIs aim to increase degree attainment by supporting Hispanic students.

In the 1980s, a grassroots group of colleges pushed for greater federal support for schools with a high Hispanic population. In 1986, 18 schools came together to form the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), which continues to advocate for Hispanic higher education.

HACU lobbied Congress to recognize the institutions serving a large number of Latino/a students. In 1992, the effort succeeded.

That year, Congress amended The Higher Education Act of 1965. Lengthy changes included a new definition of "independent" students for federal financial aid purposes, a revision to the Pell Grant formula, and a cut to student loan interest rates.

The Higher Education Act invested in historically marginalized groups by funding grants for HBCUs and low-income students. The act also created a new program — institutions with at least a 25% Hispanic student body became Hispanic-serving institutions. The designation allowed schools to apply for additional grants.

It took three more years before Congress appropriated money to the newly formed HSIs. In 1995, Congress designated $12 million for HSIs. Twenty-five years later, in 2020, $143 million went to HSI undergraduate programs.

The Student Body at Hispanic-Serving Institutions

HSIs divide almost evenly between two-year and four-year colleges. Over 40% of HSIs are public community colleges, while an additional 28% are public four-year institutions. The remaining 30% are private nonprofit colleges and universities.

While HSIs enroll many Latino/a undergraduates, these students do not necessarily make up a majority of the student body. To receive HSI status, institutions must count Latino/a students as at least 25% of their undergraduate population.

On average, slightly under half of students at HSIs identify as Latino/a. According to 2018 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 47.9% of students at HSI identify as Hispanic.

HSIs also serve other historically marginalized students. In fact, 75 HSIs also hold the designation of Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions.

The Importance of HSIs in Higher Education

HSIs play a key role in higher education. They educate the majority of Latino/a undergrads in the U.S. Two out of three Latino/a undergrads attend an HSI.

In addition to serving so many Latino/a students, HSIs make a large impact when it comes to awarding degrees to those students. In 2018, Latino/a students earned over 138,000 associate degrees and nearly 100,000 bachelor's degrees at HSIs. These schools also awarded more than 22,000 graduate degrees.

Furthermore, Latino/a students at HSIs report higher graduation rates than the national average.

Because of the important role HSIs serve, the ED supports HSIs with grants. These include grants offered through the Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program, which helps schools expand their opportunities for Hispanic students. Other federal grant programs fund STEM programs at HSIs and improve job opportunities for Hispanic college graduates.

The ED distributes funding to HSIs based on their student support programs, community outreach programs, and efforts to increase their number of Latino/a students. Federal funding also aims to increase the number of Latino/a teachers in elementary and secondary education.

HSIs offer several benefits for students. According to a 2020 report from Excelencia in Education, successful HSIs integrate workforce preparation opportunities across campus and emphasize experiential learning. Many HSIs also work with local employers to help graduates transition into the workforce.

HSIs use several approaches to try and increase Latino/a STEM graduates. Recent research points to faculty diversity, community outreach, and student-focused services as the keys to supporting Latino/a STEM majors.

In addition, HSIs partner with local high schools to increase the number of first-generation Latino/a college students. They also offer tutoring and mentoring opportunities and integrate bilingual programs into their services. Thanks to specialized programs and a supportive environment, HSIs help increase the number of Latino/a college graduates.

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