Black colleges' new outreach: Hispanic students

With diversity already at their core, they're intensifying recruitment of the nation's fastest-growing minority.

Texas Southern University's auditorium is filled with high school students giggling and gossiping and trying to pay attention to the college recruiters on stage.

Sylvia Gaitan, interested in a career in education, is one of the more serious of the bunch, and she listens intently. In her search of area colleges, the Houston senior says she never considered the historically black university an option before today.

"But everybody seems really nice, and they say they have lots of money for students like us," she says. "Yeah, I think I am interested."

"Students like us," in this case, are Hispanics.

Not long ago, Sylvia would have been one of a just a handful of Hispanics on TSU's campus. But that number is growing markedly, reflecting a national push by historically black colleges and universities to actively recruit Hispanics and other minorities.

Between 1990 and 2000, for instance, Hispanic enrollment at African-American institutions increased 64 percent nationwide - and recruitment efforts have only intensified. TSU is a good example: Last year, there were 420 Hispanics on campus, but the number has jumped nearly 19 percent this year, to 500.

"It's common knowledge that Hispanics will soon be the biggest segment of Houston as well as the whole state of Texas, and, as educators, it is only wise for us to tap into that market," says Hasan Jamil, the school's assistant vice president of enrollment services.

Higher education, like countless other industries, is seizing the potential of the country's fastest-growing population to boost its bottom line and diversify its ranks. Universities of every kind are reaching into these communities in an effort to tap into the additional federal funding that comes with higher minority enrollment.

But nowhere are the numbers more dramatic than at black colleges, whose age-old mission has been to open educational access to minority students.

"Unlike traditional white institutions, which sometimes struggle with how to increase diversity, HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities] are starting out with diversity," says Arnold Kee, director of programs at the Institute for Higher Education Policy. "So they don't have to try as hard to convince students of color that they have an academic atmosphere that's meant for them."

Luciano Santillan, for one, was easily convinced. He grew up in the predominantly black neighborhood surrounding TSU, attended a predominantly black high school, and didn't want to move away from home - plus, he says, he was offered a great scholarship.

It "felt kinda weird" to be one of only a few Hispanics on campus when he started four years ago, recalls the senior majoring in chemistry, but "now you see a lot more."

As Hispanic representation has grown, student organizations have sprung up as well. Mr. Santillan was a founding member of TSU's chapter of Sigma Lambda Beta - the largest Latino fraternity in the US.

Chapters of the League of United Latin American Citizens and Latinas on the Rise are two other recent additions to the university's social scene. And last week, the school hosted its first Hispanic heritage day, dubbed El Día Del Tigre.

On that day, some 1,400 students from 16 predominantly Hispanic high schools were invited to the university to meet community leaders, watch hip-hop and rap performances, and talk to their college counterparts.

Other HBCUs are reaching out in similar ways. This summer, for instance, Fayetteville State University in North Carolina hired a Hispanic recruiter. Texas A&M Prairie View has begun offering Spanish lessons to all administrators. And in Ohio, Central State University officials are attending Hispanic festivals to establish a relationship with the community.

The recent impetus to increase Hispanic enrollment at black colleges may have something to do with the 2000 Census figures, which show that Hispanics are projected to increase from 13 percent of the current population to 23 percent by 2025. African-Americans, who also currently make up 13 percent of the population, are projected to grow to only 14.6 percent in those same 20 years.

But administrators at HBCUs are careful not to pin their new recruiting efforts on numbers alone. Diversity, they say, is an equally important reason for recruiting Hispanics and other minorities.

Black colleges have historically had more diverse faculties - with about 30 percent nonwhite members - than traditional higher education institutions. Their tuition costs are also about $10,000 less than at comparable private schools, says Lezli Baskerville, president and CEO of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education. "So you can get a high-quality education at a lower cost, and increase your chances of getting into graduate school," she says.

Part of the rapid increase in Hispanic enrollment at black colleges can be explained in other ways, too: Overall Hispanic population growth means that more Hispanic students are entering college across the board, and a tradition of strong family ties makes Hispanic students more likely to stay close to home.

What black colleges do in anticipation of rising Hispanic enrollment is key, say experts. By producing brochures in both Spanish and English, hiring Spanish-speaking recruiters, and changing academic courses to reflect this new population, black colleges are taking proactive steps.

"I do want to caution that our schools aren't trying to change their historic mission" on African-American students, says Dwayne Ashley, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund. "We see this as an opportunity to expand our mission and find students who are a natural fit."

Gabriel Lopez is one of those natural fits. He went to a high school that was half black, half Hispanic, and wanted to return to his community "to make a difference" - with the help of an education.

He chose TSU because he planned to major in social work and thought he could learn from the struggles of African-Americans. While he says he's always felt comfortable here, he used to see only four or five Hispanics all day long. Now he may have four or five in every class.

"But being in the minority is a good thing," says the soft-spoken sophomore in between classes. "You tend to stand out a little more."

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