The local meatpacking plant is a prime recruiting ground for Marshalltown Community College. Many of its roughly 2,000 students came to the central Iowa community for jobs at the plant, where modest wages, automation, and grueling working conditions are driving them to seek better opportunities through education.

About one in five of its students is Hispanic, putting the college within striking distance of the 25-percent threshold for becoming a Hispanic-serving institution, or HSI — a federal designation that could allow Marshalltown to compete for much-needed grants. If the college had more federal money, it could spend more on recruiting — the JBS plant this year started covering tuition for workers and their dependents, but sign-up has been slow — and on summer boot camps, said José M. Amaya, a professor of English.

But if enrollment trends continue, the chances that Marshalltown will win those funds could drop considerably.

Historically, most HSIs were, like Marshalltown, small community colleges. Now, a growing number of four-year colleges — including large research universities — are joining their rapidly expanding ranks.

Within the next few years, one in four nonprofit colleges will meet the enrollment threshold to be a Hispanic-serving institution, which means 25 percent of full-time-equivalent undergraduates are Hispanic. There were 569 colleges that hit that mark in 2019, and 362 more that were close, according to the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, the lobbying group for HSIs. (For-profit colleges are excluded.)

Gina Ann Garcia, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Pittsburgh, put it this way: “If they’re not an HSI now, they’re gonna be.”

But becoming a Hispanic-serving institution doesn’t specifically require serving Hispanic students, just enrolling them. A growing body of research suggests that the government program designed to support Hispanic education is disbursing too little money among too many colleges, without an assurance that Hispanic students are benefiting. And the competition for scarce grants is likely to get even steeper.

Two-thousand miles away from Marshalltown, the University of California at Berkeley is also pursuing HSI status, propelled by a 42-member task force plotting a roadmap to take the highly selective university from 18 percent Hispanic students to 25 percent by 2027. The move is driven by Berkeley’s desire to reflect the diversity of California’s population, a spokesman said, though “access to additional funding is always a factor for a public university.”

Gina Ann Garcia: “If they’re not an HSI now, they’re gonna be.”

Large research universities like Berkeley have the potential to “sort of plow over the institutions that initially needed the funding,” said Garcia.

Marshalltown doesn’t have a designated grant office, Amaya, the English professor, points out. “It’s hard for us to compete with a research institution,” he said. “To some extent, writing grants is their bread and butter.”

The growth in the number of HSIs reflects the country’s rapid demographic shift. While the nation’s white population is shrinking, the Latino population grew by 23 percent over the past decade, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. So while some majority-white colleges have sought HSI status intentionally, others have become HSIs by happenstance.

Those colleges aren’t always doing enough to ensure “that all these Latinx students will feel like they have a stake in this institution and feel like they belong,” said Estela Mara Bensimon, a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California and director of the Center for Urban Education.

At a time when nearly one in five Americans identifies as Hispanic, higher education faces a crucial question: What does it mean to be an HSI?

Source: Excelencia in Education and Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities analysis using U.S. Department of Education, NCES, IPEDS, 1994-2019 Fall Enrollment and Institutional Characteristics Surveys  Created with Datawrapper

Source: Excelencia in Education analysis using U.S. Department of Education, NCES, IPEDS, 1994-2019 Fall Enrollment and Institutional Characteristics Surveys  Created with Datawrapper