AFT Affiliates’ Colleges Reflect Increasing Latino Population

Students celebrate at an awards ceremony sponsored by Los Rios Comunidad.



By Virginia Myers

It’s no secret that the Latino population in the United States is increasing: There are 63.7 million Hispanic people in the United States—19.1 percent of the total population. That’s changing many things, including colleges and universities, where the number of Latino students is swelling. While Latino students have long been the largest nonwhite group on campuses, now numbers are rising even more: Hispanic enrollment at U.S. institutions of higher education is expected to top 4 million students by 2026, according to the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.

AFT members feel the shift every day. When Lisa Melendez, a librarian and a member of the Faculty Association of Suffolk Community College in New York, arrived at Suffolk County Community College 30 years ago, she says, “I remember saying, ‘OK, where is everybody?’ I was assuming there would be more diversity.” Today she is happy to see an array of ethnicities and races, including Latino students from different countries, backgrounds, experiences and cultures.

Suffolk County Community College, with 33.6 percent Latino students, is one of a rising number of “Hispanic-serving institutions,” defined as 25 percent or more Hispanic students. The Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities counted 572 Hispanic-serving institutions last year, 13 more than the year before. Emerging Hispanic-serving institutions went from 393 to 400. At the AFT, we have members at 88 HSIs and 109 emerging HSIs; those numbers include our new American Association of University Professors affiliates.

From numbers to services

As long as accredited colleges hit the 25 percent Hispanic undergraduate mark, they can be designated HSIs and apply for federal funding—they don’t have to have any special programs targeting Latino students. For this reason, some higher education experts talk about the difference between “Hispanic-enrolling” institutions and “Hispanic-serving” ones.

Hispanic-serving institutions are more responsive to the specific needs of Latino students. Though not universal, this can include language assistance, support for first-generation students and financial assistance for low-income families. Having more Latino faculty helps connect Latino students to campus life, and ethnic studies courses provide relevance and relatability.

The AFT works closely with the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities and Excelencia in Education, along with other Latino advocacy organizations, to support this work; in fact, AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus will speak at HACU’s annual conference Oct. 28.

What works

Vanessa Diaz, an admissions counselor at Suffolk County Community College, says the most important thing for the Latino students she has worked with is finding someone they feel they can trust. That could be a professor, a counselor or even someone at the front desk: someone who looks like them, speaks their language and can relate to their experiences.

Melendez, the librarian, says one student came to her the first day of the semester and asked if she spoke Spanish. When she said yes, “The look of relief on her face was incredible,” says Melendez. “There was an immediate connection.”

Melendez feels it’s important to make herself available to students for questions that might not have anything to do with the library. For example, one student asked her to review a class paper: She had no one at home who could help and felt more connected to Melendez than to the campus writing center. Melendez developed a relationship with the student, who then brought a friend, telling her, “Don’t worry, Lisa’s going to help you.”

The new student, who was undocumented and wondering whether she belonged at college at all, wound up crying at the front desk of the library, sharing her fears with Melendez, who reassured her and told her to take it one class at a time. The student has since graduated and is attending a four-year college on a full scholarship.

Diaz does not hesitate to share her own life experience. It took her seven years to earn her associate degree before she went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Taking years to complete college is not uncommon when students have to work throughout their academic career and take time off for family. Many Latino students hear Diaz’s story and think, “maybe I can do that too,” she says.

Because many students are the first in their families to attend college, they often want to bring their parents to meetings so they understand expectations too, says Diaz. Students may still live at home and have responsibilities there; if family members understand what effect skipping class could have on their academic success, for example, they may be more supportive and adjust family demands.

At American River College, part of the Los Rios Community College District in the Sacramento, Calif., area, AFT faculty have specific ideas about supporting Latino students and contributed them to a comprehensive report, “Mejorando ARC para Nuestras Comunidades: Recommendations for Equitable Practices for Latinx Student Success.” Among their recommendations: involve families in workshops and resource centers, provide Spanish translation in print and online, provide confidential space for students who are undocumented or from mixed-status families to discuss personal or legal matters, provide emergency funds when needed, and hire more Latino tutors.

The bottom line is to provide a warm and supportive environment, says Veronica Lopez, a health and education professor at American River College and co-chair of Comunidad, a Latino faculty-staff support group focused on student success. She envisions having enough Latino faculty to send students from one professor to another, all in different departments, as if they are going to the homes of aunts and uncles. To do that, the school needs more Latino faculty.

“There’s something about personalization,” says Cathy Arellano, an American River College English professor who was a principal author of the report. In a “very family-oriented” culture, it’s important to include family in campus events and orientations—and not just parents but siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents or close community members as well. The report also recommends training for faculty, who could incorporate culturally reflective material, use study groups or “familias,” and bring in Latino professionals as classroom visitors and mentors.


Miami Dade College is deeply involved in community life including in cultural events like this book fair. Photo Courtesy of Miami Book Fair.


We Are The Majority

At Miami Dade College, the number of Latino students is flipped compared with colleges outside of Florida, with the majority—71.9 percent—being Hispanic or Latino. What policies and approaches work to support a majority Latino campus like this?

Alejandro Angee, who teaches a bilingual literature class at Miami Dade College, echoes the power of having Latino faculty and staff. At MDC about 50 percent of the faculty are Latino, but Angee says the ratio could be even better, to match the student population.

Other supportive practices include recruiting Latino students from area high schools. Before Florida law forbid it, MDC—which is an open admissions college—offered remedial courses to support them through their early classes, and scholarships targeted for Latino and Black students. Today, the financial aid offices at MDC do everything possible to support students who need that kind of assistance.

MDC has close connections to its larger Miami community as well. “There’s a lot of academic and intellectual exchange,” says Angee. MDC runs the local film festival and a much-anticipated book fair that includes Latino writers. A live arts program hosts artists who both perform and teach. And since the Miami community is majority Latino, these community connections also serve to support the Latino student population.

Faculty factor

Nationwide, just 6 percent of college faculty identify as Hispanic, while 21 percent of students identify that way. “We need more faculty that are full-time across the board,” says Melendez, whose library staff has shrunk by half in the last few years. But Latino faculty are especially needed and help students “connect and see themselves,” she says. “That’s really important.”

“Increasing Latino representation on the faculty is crucial to increase college completion rates and demonstrate to Latino college students that success in academe truly is a stepping stone for success on and off campus,” writes Excelencia in Education.

At Los Rios Community College District, Latino faculty and staff organized Comunidad de LRCCD to network and enhance professional opportunities for faculty and staff, and to help them advocate for students and nurture a welcoming environment. “A sense of familia is critical for Latinx/Chicanx individuals to thrive in the large and complex institution of education, for professionals as much as students,” Comunidad states on its website. The organization hosts an awards program every year and publishes accomplishments and opportunities in a periodic newsletter. It’s also been instrumental with the Hispanic-serving institution funding application and has met with administrators to make it clear Latino faculty must be part of the conversation when budgeting how to spend the grants.

“I’m very proud of our ARC Comunidad,” says Lopez.