Why being designated Hispanic ‘serving’ is not nearly enough for higher education institutions

Schools acknowledge — and demonstrate — how they are going deeper to show commitment, produce results

The New Jersey Institute of Technology will soon earn the federal designation of being a Hispanic-serving institution, as it will cross the required 25% threshold of enrollment.

That’s not good enough for NJIT President Teik Lim.

Lim wants NJIT to be known as a “Hispanic-thriving” institution. Or, better, a “Hispanic-graduating” university.

“In my mind, that rightly turns the focus to outcomes,” he said.

Lim made his remarks on a panel with Rutgers University – Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor, New Jersey City University President Andrés Acebo and Bergen County Community College President Eric Friedman on Friday at the Diversity Expo by the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey.

The group was discussing the ways their schools — and higher education, in general — are having an impact on the Hispanic community.

Lim was proud of NJIT’s efforts with Hispanic students — and all students of color and underserved communities.

“Students in the underrepresented population achieve almost identical outcomes to those of their peers at NJIT in regard to two things: graduation rates and employment,” he said. “We graduate students and get them jobs, so they can be impactful members of the community as a professional.”

Cantor said the same outcomes hold true at Rutgers-Newark. And Cantor said Rutgers-Newark doesn’t view the diversity on its campus as an identifier, but, rather, a difference-maker. The school is perhaps the most diverse urban research community in the country.

“We really see the diversity of our student body as an asset for the curriculum for the innovation that’s produced, and for the social mobility we create in our community,” she said.

Cantor points to the school’s Lives in Translation program — which takes advantage of the more than four dozen languages spoken in the homes of the students.

“The point of being Hispanic-serving is that you cultivate the extraordinary knowledge and lived experience of a diverse student body, then you turn that into innovation,” she said.

Cantor notes Rutgers-Newark is one of seven schools in the Garden State LSAMP — or Louis Stokes Alliance for minority participation, which has helped students succeed in non-medical STEM majors since it was founded in 1991. (Fairleigh Dickinson University, Kean University, Montclair State University, NJIT, Rutgers-New Brunswick and Essex County College also are in the group.)

“What’s important is that we’re not just producing graduating numbers, we are producing people who will create the innovation that will change the field,” she said.

Friedman agreed that simply saying you’re Hispanic-serving is not enough.

“What do you do to ensure success for your Hispanic students?” he asked, then answered, telling how having the Hispanic Chamber at the school’s campus in Lyndhurst has helped support a business incubator. He also noted a program where Hispanic students can meet with Hispanic C-suite executives in the area.

“If we don’t, purposefully and intentionally, create services, activities and opportunities for Hispanic students, they will not graduate at the same rate as other students,” he said.

Acebo said population numbers will create even more “Hispanic-serving” institutions in the coming years. The charge, he said, is for universities to be more than just a “Hispanic-enrolling” institutions.

Acebo said intention is everything — and the recognition and realization that being embedded in your community is the only way that you serve your community.

“The pathway forward that we’ve charged and chartered has been about being unrelentingly focused on driving economic and social mobility — of recognizing that that degree that our (families) pushed us to pursue is still the single greatest pathway to mobility,” he said.

Acebo said schools, as they build back from the pandemic, need to brush away and clear the systemic impediments that permeate and persist in communities of color. It means students need to see diversity in the student body, in the faculty and in the administration.

“That requires intention,” he said.

Designations only go so far.