Read in Spanish.

When Jennifer Reyes emigrated from the Dominican Republic in 2016, she wanted to build a better future for herself. Upon entering the United States, she listed some of her goals: to continue her education, find a better job, and earn more money. But at the time, she didn’t speak English.

“One of the reasons I chose Urban College was because they offered Spanish classes, something I thought was impossible to find in this city,” she said. “I can say that was the biggest motivation.”

Urban College of Boston is one of seven Hispanic Serving Institutions in the state, or HSI, federally recognized colleges with enrollment of at least 25% Latino. Obtaining this recognition opens the door to specially designated federal funding.

But unlike historically black colleges and tribal colleges, which have similar federal designations, Hispanic-serving institutions don’t need to specifically commit to serving Hispanic students to be recognized.

First-hand accounts from students and faculty at these institutions point to a wide range of support services offered. Urban College, an HSI for over 25 years, has earned a reputation among its Latino students for attending to their language and other needs. At Bunker Hill, which gained federal status in 2020, some students complain the school isn’t providing them with adequate support — although a professor said the school is working to do more.

Deborah Santiago, CEO of Excelencia in Education, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit, said explicit and intentional engagement with Latino students can reveal the support a college offers.

“If you had to explain why your Hispanic students are successful, what would you say? This is how you translate what you know about your students [as] how you serve them and his intentions,” she said. “If you can say our outreach program is doing something, that means they know who they serve and they know how they serve them.”

Besides Urban College and Bunker Hill, the HSIs in the state are: Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology, Cambridge College, North Shore Community College, Northern Essex Community College, and Springfield Technical College. Three receive federal HSI funds — Bunker Hill, Springfield Tech and Northern Essex — with their grants ranging from $2.1 million to $3.4 million.

Among HSIs in Massachusetts, Urban College has one of the highest concentrations of Latino students, at 63%, while Bunker Hill has the highest number of undergraduate students, about 2,600.

Assessing graduation rates for two-year schools is complicated because not all students enroll for a degree. Hispanic graduation rate figures at six of the state’s HSIs ranged from 19% at Springfield Tech and 23% at Cambridge College to highs of 66% at Bunker Hill and 62% at Northern Essex Community College, whose rates include students who have transferred, completed 30 credits, or remain enrolled after six years. Urban College did not respond to GBH News’ request for data.

A broader look at statewide degree success presents a mixed picture of Latinos in higher education. Although Latinos in Massachusetts graduate from four-year institutions at a higher rate than those nationwide, they still lag behind whites in the state in college degrees. According to Excelencia in Education, only 27% of Latino adults in the state earned an associate’s degree or higher in 2018, about half the rate for white adults.

“The Latinx population is the fastest growing in the state. In an area like New England, where the overall population is declining, this is absolutely critical,” said Massachusetts Higher Education Commissioner Carlos Santiago. “If we don’t educate the fastest growing group, we’re going to be at a real disadvantage.”

In the southwestern states, HSIs play a prominent role in educating their large Hispanic populations. HSIs began as a grassroots effort in the early 1980s after college leaders in Texas and New Mexico became more aware of their large enrollments of Latino students. The Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities was established in 1986 and coined the term “Hispanic-Serving Institution”. In 1992, Congress granted these schools official recognition. After achieving HSI status, colleges become eligible to receive funds through three U.S. Department of Education programs.

Action for Boston Community Development, the city’s nonprofit anti-poverty agency, founded Urban College in 1993 to serve older, nontraditional students. The college’s current president, Michael Taylor, said that in the late 1990s, early childhood educators were concerned that Hispanic and Latino staff lacked a path to higher education.

“Urban College of Boston moved very quickly to immediately offer these courses in the students’ native language, a course that students could both pass and feel comfortable and supported in,” he said. .

Its early childhood program allows students whose first language is not English to start lessons in their native language. Students then gradually transition into English classes while working toward an associate’s degree.

Reyes enrolled at Urban College in 2019 and began taking bilingual classes in early childhood education. Liliana Avendaño, another student in the program, said teaching some classes in Spanish provided her with educational and psychological benefits.

“When Urban College opened its doors and said, ‘Don’t worry if you don’t speak English, we’re offering these classes in Spanish’, I thought, ‘This is the chance’,” said said Avendaño. “When you can’t speak or understand English, you feel frustrated. It could give us value and courage.

Taylor said Urban College hasn’t raised tuition in nine years, so students can afford it. Additionally, the college offers the Tuition-Free Community College Plan, which can pay for up to three years of college education for low-income students, regardless of immigration status, and help cover costs. transportation, a laptop and other school-related expenses. expenses.

The main building of Urban College of Boston stands on the corner of Boylston and Washington streets in Boston on April 14, 2022.

Meredith Nierman


“Making college financially accessible only to Latinx students is not enough.”

Carlos Santiago, Massachusetts Higher Education Commissioner

Bunker Hill, a much newer HSI where 26% of students are Hispanic, also offers similar financial aid to make college more affordable.

Education Commissioner Santiago, who is Puerto Rican, said aside from cost, it’s important to understand other challenges Latino students face.

“We found that affordability was a key consideration in whether they were going to go to college and succeed. But we also found that making college financially accessible only to Latinx students is not enough,” he said. “You have to provide support structures, whether it’s language support structures or other support structures that are essential to a student’s success.

Prior to achieving HSI status, Bunker Hill had already implemented some initiatives to specifically support Latino students: the Latinx Student Success initiative, Hispanic Heritage Month, and the Halting Oppressive Pathways through Education (HOPE) initiative.

The college also had a Latinos Club which had been dormant for several years. Miguel Zepeda Torres, chair of the global languages ​​department, said the college’s HSI status inspired the club’s revival, and 15 students enrolled at the start of the fall 2021 semester.

But now it seems he has stopped meeting again. Bunker Hill student Justin Muñoz, a member of the Student Government Association, said the Latinos Club is not on his current list of active clubs.

Since officially becoming an HSI, Bunker Hill has focused on creating what the college calls “pathways to success through culturally appropriate programming.” Zepeda Torres, who is Mexican American, said these pathways focus on students’ ultimate career goals.

“Let’s say they’re more for science. In science, we have a path that leads to a career that they want to do. But what is the ultimate goal? What do they want to do?” he said. “After they choose a goal, they choose a path to that goal. We focus on the steps they need to take so they don’t lose any time taking courses they don’t need, and we don’t lose them along the way.

Zepeda Torres added that an automated communication system plays an important role in the lanes. The system communicates directly with students regarding meeting with an advisor or sends alerts if they are taking courses that will not count towards their ultimate goal.

But Muñoz says Bunker Hill doesn’t offer support when he struggles in school. Bunker Hill is also an Asian Pacific Islander and Native American Serving Institution, or AANAPISI, a similar federal designation — and Muñoz says a designated counselor reaches out to these students when their grades drop.

“When I fail my classes, they don’t contact me,” he said. “The same way ANAPISI has a counselor, there should be a Latinx counselor. There’s one who comes on Fridays, but she’s only part-time in college, and she’s the only who speaks Spanish.

Zepeda Torres said the HSI grant of $2.9 million which Bunker Hill received in 2020 will be published over five years. The money will go towards guided pathways and integrated support services for Latino students.

“Most of the work has yet to have a direct impact on students,” he said. “But it’s something that I think was long overdue. This is something that ultimately will benefit everyone. »

At Urban College, José Colón-Rivas, Academic Program Coordinator for Early Childhood Education, said he was pleased with the college’s efforts to support Latino students.

“It’s a ripple effect. I know that by impacting someone, someone is going to impact someone else in the best way,” Colón-Rivas said. “I think so far, with everything we’ve been able to implement, this is the right path at the right time for the right communities in Massachusetts.”

Reyes is still finishing his studies at Urban College. She said her goal was to become a public school principal in Massachusetts.

“That’s what I want to do,” she said. “I want to be ready for those opportunities.”