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Three college students smiling and standing together outside during an event to celebrate Hispanic/Latinx communities

University of Northern Colorado Achieves Federal Designation as Hispanic Serving Institution

La Universidad del Norte de Colorado logra la designación federal de Institución al Servicio de los Hispanos

As Colorado's newest Hispanic Serving Institution, the university is now eligible for new funding opportunities to support student success, but will remain equally focused on building and fostering cultural responsiveness

More than 18 months ahead of schedule, the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) received notification this week from the U.S. Department of Education that it is officially Colorado’s newest Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). 

“This is a significant milestone for our university,” said UNC President Andy Feinstein. “Since officially beginning our pursuit of the HSI designation, our focus has been twofold. We have endeavored both to meet and exceed the enrollment threshold requirements for the designation and ensure that our institution fosters a sense of belonging for Hispanic and Latine students, their families and the broader community.  

“This ambitious vision is fundamental to our future. It aligns with our commitment to put students first and create an inclusive environment where all individuals — students, faculty and staff — feel welcomed and supported,” continued Feinstein. 

“At UNC, being an HSI is more than a federal designation — it’s a way of being. Our collective work toward student success, regardless of a students’ race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, physical or mental abilities and other demographic traits, will provide equitable outcomes and systemically eliminate disparities.” 

— Tobias Guzmán

Achieving the federal HSI designation was a key action identified in UNC’s 10-year strategic plan, Rowing, Not Drifting 2030. Under the leadership of Vice President of the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Tobias Guzmán, the university formally embarked on a comprehensive five-year plan in 2020, with the goal of attaining the HSI designation by fall 2025.  

Guzmán said that realizing the goal more than a full year ahead of schedule is a testament to the level of commitment within the university community that dates as far back as 1969, long before the federal HSI designation was created, when UNC established its Mexican American Studies Program. 

"We may not have been talking about becoming an HSI in 1969, but had we not taken that first step 55 years ago, and many other steps along the way, to recognize the importance of celebrating and supporting cultural diversity, we wouldn’t have been as prepared as we are today,” said Guzmán. 

The U.S. Department of Education defines an HSI as an institution of higher education with an undergraduate full-time equivalent enrollment of at least 25% Hispanic students. UNC has seen a consistent, steady increase in the number of Hispanic/Latine students over the past several years. In fall 2022, enrollment of Hispanic/Latine students was at 25.5% and reached a high of 26.3% in fall 2023.  

The designation is important in that it opens the doors to additional federal funds, in the form of competitive grants, specifically designed to support HSIs in improving their academic quality and service to students. But leadership at the university has been steadfast in their assertion that the designation is just one element of what they foresee as a successful HSI at UNC. 

“At UNC, being an HSI is more than a federal designation — it’s a way of being,” said Guzmán. “Our collective work toward student success, regardless of a students’ race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, physical or mental abilities and other demographic traits, will provide equitable outcomes and systemically eliminate disparities.” 

According to the Colorado Department of Higher Education, even though Hispanic/Latine individuals represent the largest and fastest-growing ethnic group, they have the lowest average educational attainment and the lowest college enrollment rate of any ethnic group in the state. Nationally, the four-year college graduation rate for Hispanic students is than that compared to their white, non-Hispanic peers. At UNC, the discrepancy isn’t as high, but Hispanic/Latine students still experience lower graduation and retention rates compared to their white, non-Hispanic peers.  

With just under one-third of Colorado’s high school graduates and 60% of the students in the Greeley-Evans School District identifying as Hispanic/Latine, finding ways to better serve this growing demographic is a priority.      

Guzmán said it’s imperative that for UNC to be an effective HSI, it needs to find ways to address these disparities — to operate in a way that reduces potential barriers that Hispanic/Latine students face in accessing higher education while at the same time creating an environment where they feel they belong.   

The UNC Tuition Promise is one example of the university’s most recent efforts to remove those barriers and increase higher education opportunities for educationally and economically disadvantaged students. The program, which goes into effect in fall 2024, will lessen the financial burden for students with the greatest financial need by covering tuition and mandatory fees for all eligible Colorado residents with an adjusted gross income of $65,000 or less.  

Another recent initiative, UNC's Colorado First-Year Admission Guarantee was implemented last fall to provide clarity and confidence for high school guidance counselors, families and prospective students as they explore pathways to a college education. Eligible students who meet the clearly defined criteria are guaranteed admission to the university. 

These programs are in addition to work that has been underway over the past several years specifically focused on creating a more culturally inclusive campus environment, strengthening community engagement and partnerships with local Hispanic-serving organizations and enhancing academic support and success for all underrepresented populations.  

“We’re not done,” said Guzmán when referring to the university’s next steps.  

“The federal designation opens doors to federal funding opportunities specifically designed to support institutions serving all students, but we’ll also be internally focused on continuing to build and foster our cultural responsiveness.  

“We know students that come from limited income and/or marginalized backgrounds will benefit from resources that may now be available to us — resources that would allow us to enhance academic programs, expand support services and invest in initiatives aimed at promoting student success and graduation. By leveraging these resources effectively and cultivating a sense of belonging for all of our students, we will create more equitable pathways to higher education and ensure that all students have the tools they need to thrive.” 

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