College Guide for Hispanic and Latino/a Students

Unique challenges may shape college experiences for Hispanic and Latino/a students. Learn more with our college guide for Hispanic and Latino/a learners.

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by Staff Writers

Updated September 23, 2022

Reviewed by Susana Muñoz, Ph.D.

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College Guide for Hispanic and Latino/a Students

Key Trends | Challenges and Barriers | Important Factors | College Resources | Advocacy Groups and Organizations | Frequently Asked Questions

America has never been more diverse. In 2020, the U.S. population included 62.1 million Hispanic and Latino/a people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Hardly homogenous, this diverse community traces its lineage to Spain, Mexico, Central America, South America, and Spanish-speaking Caribbean countries.

Hispanic and Latino/a students have made significant gains in higher education over the last few decades. However, hurdles related to systemic inequity, college affordability, and financial aid access persist. The pandemic has also exacerbated and created challenges.

This guide covers how Hispanic and Latino/a students can gain access to resources and scholarships that may help make college more attainable.

Key Trends for Hispanic and Latino/a College Students

What is a promising trend you see among Hispanic and Latino college students in terms of academic success and retention?

Portrait of Dr. Socorro Zaragoz

Dr. Socorro Zaragoz

"Latino students are seeking opportunities to give back to their communities by serving as mentors for the next generation. We are seeing many successful college students return to their communities to share their experiences and help students and their families to navigate the college process. They are committed to their success."

Challenges and Barriers to Success

In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge for Hispanic and Latino/a college students today?

Portrait of Elva Joya

Elva Joya

"In my opinion, one of the biggest challenges for Hispanic and Latinx college students today is finding a home in their campus community, both within the Hispanic and Latinx student body as well as in the campus as a whole.

Because many Hispanic and Latinx college students also identify as first-generation college students, and these students may require additional support systems throughout their college journey."

Important Factors to Consider When Preparing for College

Choosing a College

College students typically consider many of the same things when choosing a school, including location, cost, degree offerings, and campus programs. Many Hispanic and Latino/a students also may seek colleges that foster inclusive communities and offer a diverse curriculum.

Some of the best colleges for Hispanic students offer support services and cultural programs that can help make a difference in a student's college experience. These support services and programs often lead to higher rates of academic achievement.

Students may feel better represented at Hispanic-serving institutions, where at least 25% of full-time students are Hispanic. Historically Black Colleges and Universities also embrace issues that people of color face and increasingly welcome Hispanic and Latino/a students.

Applying to College

Although some schools and programs may have different requirements, the undergraduate college application process is generally similar for most schools. The application process may include completing entrance exams, gathering application materials, and making a campus visit.

Many college applications ask candidates to divulge their ethnicity or race. This information helps track the diversity of the applicant pool for the college.

Paying for College

Part of college planning also includes understanding the total out-of-pocket cost after receiving any financial aid. Many students take out loans to help pay for their education, and the total U.S. student loan debt has reached $1.5 trillion.

Before taking out a loan to cover school costs, Hispanic and Latino/a students should try to apply for scholarships and grants. Scholarships and grants, unlike loans, don't have to be paid back. Many programs specifically aid Hispanic and Latino/a students and students of color.

What advice would you give to fellow Hispanic and Latinx college students seeking guidance and support in college?

Portrait of Elva Joya

Elva Joya

"If your institution has a faculty or staff member who identifies as Hispanic or Latinx, I would seek them and build a mentorship relationship with them. I would also search on the schools events and student organization platform to find the Hispano-Latinx Alliance of your school to find students who may have similar life experiences and identities."

College Resources for Hispanic and Latino/a Students

Go to BestColleges Hispanic Heritage Month hub to find more stories and resources.

What college resources have been most helpful to your growth and development in college?

Portrait of Elva Joya

Elva Joya

"For me, it is not college resource offices as a whole but specific people in those offices. The former Director of the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Jose Moreno, the Director of Student Development Programming of the Center for Experience and Opportunity Dr. Manuel Ruiz, and mental health counselor in the Wellness Center Martha Harris have all been the most helpful in my growth and development in college."

How can colleges improve support for Hispanic and Latino college students?

Portrait of Dr. Socorro Zaragoz

Dr. Socorro Zaragoz

"Colleges and universities must invest and support initiatives that provide intentional services for Latino/x students and provide wrap-around services to meet students where they are. It is imperative to also have representation in the administration, faculty, staff, and student body so that all can collaborate to impact policy and remove barriers. Colleges must seek community partnerships to provide support services with the "It Takes a Village" approach."

National Advocacy Groups and Organizations for Hispanic and Latino/a Students

Frequently Asked Questions for Hispanic and Latino/a Students

What is the difference between Hispanic and Latino?

Historically, Hispanics were defined as "Americans who identify themselves as being of Spanish-speaking background and trace their origin or descent from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central and South America, and other Spanish-speaking countries." Alternatively, Latino/as come from or trace their heritage from Latin America.

However, these definitions are fluid and complicated by the fact that Hispanics and Latino/as often self-identify according to their own preferences -- some people identify with the terms Hispanic or Latino and Latina, while others do not have any preference. A Pew Research Center study found that about 50% of Latino/as and Hispanics often identify themselves by their country of origin, such as Mexican, El Salvadoran, or Puerto Rican.

Government agencies and organizations that collect data on ethnic groups, such as the Pew Research Center, often use the terms Hispanic and Latino interchangeably.

What percentage of college students are Hispanic and Latino/a?

According to the NCES, 36% of Hispanics ages 18-24 were enrolled in college in 2018. In fall 2017, Hispanic students made up about one-fifth of all the U.S. residents who were enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions.

What is a Latinx student?

In the 2000s, "Latinx" emerged as a gender nonspecific term to promote inclusivity. By 2015, the term rose in popularity in academic literature and Google searches.

Some academics use "Latinx" instead of "Latino" or "Latina" as a protest against gender binaries. Many colleges across the nation have embraced the adoption of Latinx. For example, Florida State University's Hispanic/Latino Student Union became the Hispanic/Latinx Student Union. Columbia University's Chicano Caucus changed its name to the Chicanx Caucus.

Outside of academic circles, the term is less common. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that about a quarter of U.S. Hispanics had heard of the term "Latinx," but only 3% used the term. Younger people (ages 18-29) and women were more likely to use the term.

Are there scholarships for Hispanic and Latino/a students?

College has never been more expensive than it is today, and U.S. student loan debt has never been higher. Financial aid, such as grants and scholarships, can help Hispanic and Latino/a students pay for tuition and college expenses. Organizations like the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and La Unidad Latina Foundation offer scholarship money to Hispanic and Latino/a students.

Scholarship applications may require applicants to have strong academic records with at least a 3.0 GPA. First-generation and undocumented students also can apply for the Red Thread Foundation Scholarship and TheDream.Us National Scholarship.

What Is a Hispanic-Serving Institution?

Colleges and universities are designated as an HSI after applying to determine if they meet the requirements. An HSI must have a full-time student body that consists of at least 25% Hispanic and Latino/a students in the year preceding the school's application date.

The White House Hispanic Prosperity Initiative maintains a list of designated HSIs. These institutions qualify for discretionary grants that can be used to promote post-baccalaureate educational opportunities, STEM degrees, and educational opportunities for Hispanic students.

HSIs enroll 67% of the Latino/a undergraduates in the U.S., according to Excelencia in Education. However, although the number of HSIs has increased dramatically over the last 10 years, these institutions only represent about 18% of all colleges and universities. In the 2019-2020 academic year, there were 569 HSIs.

Meet the Student

Portrait of Elva Joya

Elva Joya

Elva Joya is a first-generation Salvadoran student from Rockville, Maryland, attending McDaniel College. A senior psychology major with minors in biology, chemistry and Spanish, she is actively involved on campus serving as a resident assistant, President of the Hispano-Latinx Alliance, Vice-President of the McDaniel chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, and ambassador for the Center for Experience and Opportunity.

Her academic interests include culturally sensitive psychology and mental health treatment, as well as organic synthesis in medicinal chemistry. She strives to build community on campus as well as mentor fellow students of Hispanic and Latinx identities.

Meet the Faculty

Portrait of Socorro Zaragoz, Ph.D.

Socorro Zaragoz, Ph.D.

Dr. Socorro Zaragoza is an Associate Professor of Spanish in the Department of Language and Cultural Studies, Anthropology, and Sociology at Eastern Kentucky University. She teaches all levels of Spanish language as well Latin American literature and culture classes. She earned a BA in foreign language education from the Universidad de Colima in Mexico and her master's and Ph.D. from Purdue University with a focus on Spanish and Latin American studies.

She is a longtime advocate of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, stemming from her areas of scholarship on Afro-Hispanic and U.S.-Latino Studies, as well as her commitment to representing underrepresented populations — both on EKU's campus and in the community.

She has worked to achieve higher recruitment, retention, and graduation rates of underrepresented students through her advising and mentorship. She has been recognized for her leadership in diversity and student success, and has served as the Chief Diversity Officer for the College of Letters, Arts, and Social Sciences, and a University Diversity Fellow. She was also awarded the EKU Faculty Leadership Award.

Dr. Zaragoza currently serves as the Senior Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Advisor to the Provost. She remains active in a plethora of efforts for student engagement, retention, and graduation.

Reviewed by:

Portrait of Susana Muñoz, Ph.D.

Susana Muñoz, Ph.D.

Dr. Susana M. Muñoz is Associate Professor of higher education, Program Coordinator of the Higher Education Leadership (HEL) Program, and Co-Director of CSU initiatives for the Race and Intersectional Studies for Educational Equity (RISE) Center in the School of Education at Colorado State University (CSU).

Her scholarly interests center on the experiences of minoritized populations in higher education. Specifically, Dr. Muñoz focuses her research on issues of equity, identity, and campus climate for undocumented Latinx students, while employing perspectives such as legal violence, racist nativism, and Chicana feminist epistemology to identify and dismantle power, oppression, and inequities as experienced by these populations. She utilizes multiple research methods as mechanisms to examine these matters with the ultimate goal of informing immigration policy and higher education practices.

Dr. Muñoz has been honored by the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for Hispanics for her teaching and research. She was also recognized as a Salzburg Global Fellow and named one of the "top 25 most influential women in higher education" by Diverse Issues in Higher Education magazine. She also brings 13 years of student affairs experience in multicultural affairs, Greek life, diversity and leadership training, TRiO programs, and residence life.

Susana Muñoz is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.

Feature Image: Troy Aossey / Stone / Getty Images