Leer en español

Updated July 27

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

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

The Urban College of Boston is one of the state's seven Hispanic-Serving Institutions, or HSIs, federally recognized colleges whose enrollment is at least 25% Latino. Achieving that recognition opens the door for specially designated federal funding.

But unlike historically Black colleges and tribal colleges, which have similar federal designations, Hispanic-Serving Institutions don’t need to make a specific commitment to serve Hispanic students to become recognized.

Firsthand accounts from students and professors at those institutions report a wide range in the support services offered. Urban College, an HSI for more than 25 years, has gained a reputation among its Latino students for tending to their language and other needs. At Bunker Hill, which achieved that federal status in 2020, some students complain the school is falling short in providing them adequate support — though one professor indicated the school is working on doing more.

Deborah Santiago, CEO of Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., said that an explicit and intentional commitment to Latino students can reveal how much support a college is offering.

“If you had to explain why your Hispanic students are doing well, what would you point to? That’s the way that you translate what you know about your students [as] to how you’re serving them and its intentions,” she said. “If you can say our outreach program is doing something, that means that they know who they’re serving and they know how they’re serving them.”

Besides Urban College and Bunker Hill, the state’s HSIs 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 Massachusetts HSIs, Urban College has one of the highest concentrations of Latino students, at 63%, while Bunker Hill has the largest number of undergraduates, about 2,600.

Evaluating graduation rates for two-year schools is complicated because not all students enroll seeking a degree. Figures for the Hispanic graduation rate at six of the state’s HSIs ranged from lows of 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 transferred, attained 30 credits or remain enrolled after six years. Urban College did not respond to the data request from GBH News.

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

“The Latinx population is the fastest growing in the state. In a region like New England, where the overall population is getting lower, it’s absolutely essential,” 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 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 conscious of their large Latino student enrollments. The Hispanic Association of College and Universities was created in 1986 and coined the term “Hispanic-Serving Institution.” In 1992, Congress granted such schools official recognition. After obtaining 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 didn’t have a higher education pathway.

“The Urban College of Boston responded very quickly to provide those courses in students’ native language right away, one that the students could both achieve and feel comfortable and supported,” he said.

Its early childhood program allows students whose first language is not English to begin courses in their native language. Students then gradually transition into taking courses in English while working toward an associate degree.

Reyes enrolled in the Urban College in 2019 and began taking bilingual classes in early childhood education. Liliana Avendaño, another student in the program, indicated that having some coursework be taught in Spanish offered her educational and psychological benefits.

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

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

A six-story office building on the corner of a street in downtown Boston.
The main building of the Urban College of Boston rises up from the corner of Boylston and Washington Streets in Boston on April 14, 2022.
Meredith Nierman
"Making college accessible financially to Latinx students alone is not sufficient."
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 that aside from cost, it’s important to understand other challenges that Latino students face.

“We found that affordability was a critical consideration as to whether they were going to go to college and succeed. But we also found that making college accessible financially to Latinx students alone is not sufficient,” he said. “You need to provide support structures, whether they’re linguistic support structures or other support structures that are essential for a student to succeed.”

Before obtaining HSI status, Bunker Hill had already implemented some initiatives targeted at specifically supporting 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 that was dormant for several years. Miguel Zepeda Torres, chairman of the global languages department, said the college’s HSI status inspired the club’s revival, and 15 students signed up at the beginning of the fall 2021 semester.

But now, it seems that it’s stopped meeting again. Bunker Hill student Justin Muñoz, a member of the Student Government Association, said that the Latinos Club isn’t on its 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 responsive programming.” Zepeda Torres, who is Mexican American, said that these pathways focus on students’ ultimate career goals.

“Let’s say they’re more for science. In science, we have a pathway 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 choosing a goal, they pick a pathway toward that goal. We focus on the steps they have to take so they don't waste time taking courses that they don’t need, and we don’t lose them along the way.”

Zepeda Torres added that an automated communication system plays a big role within the pathways. The system communicates with students directly about meeting with an advisor or sends alerts if they’re taking classes that won’t count toward their ultimate goal.

Brendan Hughes, director of public relations at Bunker Hill Community College, said the school employs four Spanish-speaking advisors — three who work full time at the college and one who works part time. But Muñoz says he has not experienced adequate support from his part-time advisor when he’s struggling academically.

“When I’m failing my classes, they don’t reach out to me,” he said.

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

“Most of the work hasn’t directly impacted students yet,” he said. “But it’s something that I think was long overdue. It’s something that, at the end of the day, is going to benefit everyone.”

At Urban College, José Colón-Rivas, an academic program coordinator for early childhood education, said he’s thrilled about the efforts that college has made to support Latino students.

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

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

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

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated Bunker Hill Community College had one part-time advisor who speaks Spanish. At the time of publishing, the college had one part-time and three full-time advisors who speak Spanish.