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Hispanic student enrollment on steady rise, university continues progress on offering more support

University of Houston-Clear Lake has been on a trajectory of growth over the last 10 years, from expanding educational opportunities to Pearland, to offering courses to the first freshman class, to the opening of three new buildings, including the first residence hall. The growth continues as UH-Clear Lake celebrates its 10th consecutive year designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI).

The number of Hispanic students enrolling at UHCL grew 47% between fall 2010 and fall 2019 to represent more than 35% of the total student population, according to data released earlier this year by the Office of Institutional Effectiveness. An in-depth look at the data shows that there’s more to the story: UHCL is not just a place where Hispanic students enroll, but where they succeed.

A university is federally recognized as an HSI when its Hispanic enrollment of full-time undergraduates represents 25% of its total enrollment, among other requirements. UHCL first earned this designation in fall 2010.

Undergraduates account for the biggest increase at UHCL, moving up from 28% to 42% of all undergraduate students enrolled during this period.

“What stood out to me was that we are approaching 50% of undergrads who are identifying as Hispanic, and I think part of that has to do with our downward expansion,” said Miriam Barrera Qumsieh, associate director of Institutional Research. “When looking at the data, you see that enrollment was steady, but after 2014, there was significant growth.”

Hispanic enrollment at UHCL echoes statewide data. Across Texas, Hispanic students represent 34% of all students enrolled at a four-year public university in fall 2019, and nearly 40% of all undergraduate students enrolled.

While an enrollment increase is a positive marker of growth, UHCL’s primary purpose as an HSI is to close the gaps in educational opportunities. There were more Hispanic young adults who had not completed high school or enrolled in college or trade school than non-Hispanics between 1996 and 2016, according to U.S. Census data. In terms of graduate and professional school, Hispanics represented the group with the lowest proportion enrolled compared to other groups.

Looking further into the academic performance of UHCL’s Hispanic students shows that they are thriving in more ways than one.

Full-time transfer students who begin their education at UHCL are completing their degree in four years at a higher rate when compared to all UHCL students. Those pursuing a master’s degree have consistently earned a higher cumulative GPA than non-Hispanic students.

Additionally, the number of degrees awarded to Hispanic students has grown, representing 31% of all graduates in the 2019 academic year, with the biggest increase in bachelor’s degrees.

“In admissions, we are really working to focus more on access because when students earn that degree, their opportunities grow,” said Kara Hadley-Shakya, executive director of Recruitment and Admissions. “It’s important in higher education for us to know who we are and make sure that mission and vision become a reality.”

“I expect these numbers to continue to grow. Projected growth for the Hispanic population in Houston and Texas is on an upward trend,” Barrera Qumsieh said. “This will grow our Hispanic student pool as well as for universities across Texas.”

Hispanic students enrolling are increasingly diverse, according to the data.

Those with intersectional identities such Hispanic Asian, Hispanic Black or African American, Hispanic multiracial, among others, have all enrolled at higher numbers. Meanwhile, they are enrolling at a younger age. The average age of Hispanic students fell from 29 to 26, and those under age 20 grew by 97% over the last 10 years. Hispanic students also represented more than half of all first-generation students at the university in fall 2019.

Together, these data paint a picture of younger Hispanic students, who are the first in their families to go to college, pursuing higher education at UHCL.

For these students, attending classes with others from similar backgrounds is crucial for their social and personal growth.

“The fact that there are more of these students could potentially help with retention,” said Aliya Beavers, director of the Office of Student Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. “If you’re entering a first-year seminar, and you’re seeing people that are not only of a similar background, but also a similar age, that can help students feel more welcome. When students see themselves in their peers, that can help with them to stay enrolled.”

Supporting Hispanic students

Being an HSI allows UHCL to play a role in breaking down barriers to education with federal support to expand and enhance academic offerings, quality of degree programs and resources for Hispanic and low-income students.

UHCL launched the Pathways to STEM Careers program after receiving $3.7 million in fall 2016 to help Hispanic and other low-income students transition to UHCL and succeed in STEM fields. The program offers a learning community for students to connect with other students, develop leadership skills, explore future careers and participate in research.

Additionally, the university opened the STEM and Classroom Building, and began offering the Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering program in fall 2018. Opportunities like these can be tied to the pattern of Hispanic students pursuing degrees in the College of Science and Engineering. The percentage of Hispanic students in the college more than tripled over the last ten years with a significant growth spike in fall 2016.

Another program creating opportunities for Hispanic students launched earlier this summer. The Exploring Careers in Teaching (EXCITE) program supports students in earning a graduate degree and launching a career in teaching by providing help with entrance exams, social support and career workshops. Students in the program get access to scholarships, academic and career support, assistantships and help with teaching content exams.

Selene Reyes Verhofstad is benefitting from the program to complete her doctorate in education in curriculum and instruction.

“This grant is very helpful to Hispanic students, she said. “I felt that they were out there reaching toward us to become part of the community. They made me feel welcomed and gave me a sense of belonging at UHCL. My parents are Mexican, and I’m a first-generation college student. The funds helped pay about half my tuition last semester.”

In addition to academics, the university is working to support, recognize and celebrate its Hispanic identity with changes to recruiting and cultural programming.

“In the last year, we have added info sessions and campus tours in Spanish to our open house events, and have staff identify as Spanish speakers to support students and their families,” Hadley-Shakya said. “With COVID-19, we started offering counselor sessions and webinar events in Spanish as well.”

Additionally, SDEI hosts Affinity Lunches during Weeks of Welcome for students to connect with others who share similar backgrounds as they transition to UHCL. The office is also working on growing its First Generation programming, which provides resources and a community for all first-generation students. One of these programs is First Gen Friday, which is a supportive collection of experiences such as meetings and workshops geared toward first-generation students.

Making positive steps

As more Hispanic students are expected to look to UHCL for their education, university leaders know progress must continue meet their needs and fulfill the university’s growing potential to be distinctive as an HSI.

A task force was formed in spring 2019 and led by Beavers, Associate Vice President for Student Success Initiatives Tim Richardson and Associate Professor of Social Psychology and Director of the Latinx and Latin American Studies Program Desdamona Rios. The group included faculty, staff and students from across the university who began conversations to assess what is currently being done to support Hispanic students and ways UHCL could improve. They presented recommendations to university leadership at the end of the year.

“My hope is that we can raise more awareness that Hispanic students are a population that we need to highlight and celebrate at the university level,” Beavers said. “It has to start with investing in more resources to make university-wide changes.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused major disruptions to life on campus, Beavers said there have been positive steps made toward this effort.

The university launched a new web page to elevate its Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration, and is working on adding information about diversity, inclusion and HSI designation to the website.

“As more Hispanic students enroll and get involved on campus, it will increase their representation and visibility as a whole,” Beavers said. “The institution is doing a better job. Beyond that, if folks in the community learn about what we are doing for these students, it will help raise visibility for them and help people recognize our HSI status.”

Beavers said the task force aims to resume progress this year on implementing its recommendations.

For admissions and recruiting, progress means focusing on being accessible to students and their families.

“The growing trend I’ve noticed is that we are not seeing just students at recruiting and open house events, but we’re also meeting their families,” Hadley-Shakya said. “Our focus is to meet the students where they are so that we make sure we are more accessible as an institution.”

Additionally, more faculty members are working on grant initiatives to support Hispanic and minority students, according to the Office of Sponsored Programs. More details are expected to be shared throughout the year.

Work on collecting and mapping data for fall 2020 student enrollment and demographics is set to begin later this fall.

This is the fourth in a series of features spotlighting Hispanic Heritage Month at UHCL. Learn more about Hispanic Month Celebration events happening through Oct. 15.