Pop music filled Sneaky Park beside Wilson Library all the way to the Campus Center, during the 24-hour event last week. Walking toward Sneaky Park, someone was speaking over the music announcing team names and match-ups. A giant see-saw was ridden by Phi Delta Theta members, who were rocking each other back and forth with force. The first game of a volleyball tournament had started and there was a crowd surrounding the court. The Teeter Totter event was back for the first time since 2019. Things were looking back to normal. But across higher education, particularly among Hispanic Serving Institutions similar to La Verne, there is a new normal.
As the University of La Verne wraps up its first full year back since the COVID-19 pandemic threw the University, with most of higher education, into the unknown territory of remote learning for more than a year, the traditional undergraduate population of this Hispanic Serving Institution has remained mostly intact. That is despite this massive upheaval that caused a marked decline among college students in general, and among Hispanic students in particular.
The Hispanic Serving Institution designation goes to colleges and Universities for which more than 25% of the student body is of Hispanic or Latinx heritage. ULV’s population is 56% Hispanic. The University officially became a HSI in 2014, a designation that makes the University eligible for certain federal grants and benefits. Since then the University has leaned into its HSI status, which officials believe contributed to its success in retaining students over all and particularly during the tumultuous past two years.
In the wake of the pandemic, the total number of college students has dropped by 2.7%, or more than 1 million students overall. Among Hispanic undergraduate students, the decline between fall 2019 and fall 2021 was 6.9% between 2019 and 2021, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
The pandemic effectively began to reverse what had been a 20-year growth trend in the number of Hispanic student enrollment in both two-year and four-year colleges and universities according to the same research.
Despite these national trends, however, the University of La Verne has managed to sustain its Latinx student population according to Factbook, a part of Tableau Public, a data sharing website that displays enrollment numbers, among other important data.
University officials say this relative success is based on a variety of factors, with the fact that people of Hispanics and Latinx origin make up 48% of the population of Los Angeles County, according to the 2020 Census.
“Our geography benefits us,” said Daniel Loera, the University’s director of multicultural affairs. “It makes us attractive because we are so close. People have a connection from La Verne with people they trust. It helps them understand the benefits they can get from coming to La Verne.”
Mary Aguayo, the University’s vice president of enrollment management, said ULV also does specific outreach to help make college accessible, such working with 50 local high schools, where administrators meet with students to help them figure out how to fill out their Free Application for Federal Student Aid and work on their financial aid.
In 2020 the University made SATs optional for incoming students. Aguayo said La Verne made this decision because SAT scores do not reflect students and their ability to perform and achieve in college. Numerous studies support this notion, finding that wealthier students earn higher SAT scores than their lower-income peers.
“We started providing (bilingual) orientation for the parents about 10 years ago,” Loera said. “At first, there were only a few people that could speak Spanish to the parents that came to visit. Now when we have these orientations, there are about two or three bilingual administrators per department ready to present to the parents in Spanish, and it shows the dedication of the University as a whole. We want parents to discuss their feelings and understand that we are here and they are not alone.”
Loera said the University understands Latinx culture, and the fear some parents may have about their child leaving for school. He said La Verne strives to provide the families with all the tools and opportunities to understand how the school can support its students and families, and works to build lasting relationships with the students and their families.
Along with its HSI status, more than 40 percent of ULV students are first-generation college students, or the first member or generation in their families to attend college.
The majority of first-generation students are also Latinx, said Aracely Gutiérrez, director of the University’s first generation peer mentoring program.
First generation students have their own particular growing pains when it comes to navigating college, Gutiérrez said.
“It’s a learning experience,” Gutiérrez said. “Most of these kids do not have support at home. Not because their parents don’t want them to go, but because no one at home knows how to apply for college, write the essays or help find financial aid, and sometimes the parents don’t even know how to voice their concerns.”
Gutiérrez also said that the Latinx students she mentors struggle between their responsibilities to their families and their college workloads.
“The first-generation students struggle because they don’t know what they need to apply for college,” Gutiérrez said, adding that once they enroll, “for the Latinx students, there is a sense of responsibility for both home and college. Instead of spending extra time here studying, meeting with professors, or meeting other people, these students have to go home and take care of their siblings or even work to help the family financially.”
A recent article, “The Missing Hispanic Students” in the Chronicle of Higher Education, highlighted that the combination of the pandemic forcing many blue-collar jobs out of commission for a brief period, and Latinx students more likely coming from low-income families with also being first generation college students, led Latinx students to delay college to work to help support their families, or take on the role of a third parent to their little siblings. Most of whom were homeschooling for at least the first year of the pandemic.
“It’s difficult to balance school and family,” said Giselle Lopez, a senior kinesiology major at ULV, who is also a first-generation college student. “Trying to do both and adding work as well is hard. Having to drive home when something happens and missing school sucks, but the professors here understand that family stuff happens. And they understand that sometimes I have to take care of my family.”
Lopez, who graduates this month, has enjoyed her time at ULV because she feels that ULV has provided her with the support she has needed to finish school, and she understands that there are people here for her.
“My experience at La Verne has been the best ever,” Lopez said. “La Verne is family oriented and this is what makes it feel like home to me. The school support system is strong, and even though I haven’t used them, I know I have resources and support when I need it.
“My family has been supportive during my time here at school,” Lopez added. “I do have responsibilities I still need to attend to, but my family allows me to stay on top of my school work still.”
“We have worked to engage in the conversation about what it means to be an HSI,” Loera said. “We have worked in coordination with the Alliance of Hispanic Serving Institution Educators, an organization that helps educators network and collaborate to support underserved populations of students including Latinx students, that has helped us stay focused on the pragmatic practices of providing service to our community.”
Now as we approach a demographic dip in the college age group, due to the 2008 market crash lowered birth rates, institutions are looking to tap into California and other states’ larger Latinx populations. Loera said he expects more colleges to begin to reach out to these population pools in order to keep enrollment numbers from dipping even lower.
“I really liked La Verne because of its close-knit community, and my parents have been really proud of me being able to come to college and make something out of myself,” said Ana Hernandez, who graduated in January with a degree in political science. “La Verne sent out letters and have had web pages that are bilingual that have helped my mom understand what is going on at ULV. And I think the events like all the graduation ones are great because they included my parents throughout the entire experience.”
Hernandez also described the responsibility of helping to provide for her family and the responsibility she feels to stay in touch with her home life.
“I have felt that I needed to provide due to some family stuff,” she said. “It was very instilled in me that I should make something of myself and be financially independent because my mom always told me I should have something for myself. I have felt I needed to be active with my family even though I haven’t lived at home for almost 4 years. I still call every day and visit home as much as I can.”
Jacob Barriga can be reached at email@example.com.