Western Oregon University wants to be a Hispanic Serving Institution. Students want to know what that means

By Meerah Powell (OPB)
May 15, 2023 1 p.m.

WOU is the closest public university in Oregon to becoming an HSI, a federal designation that opens the door to new funding opportunities

Brenda Rocio Martinez decided to go to Western Oregon University for a number of reasons. It’s close to Woodburn, where she’s from. She was excited about the public policy program. But one of the biggest reasons she chose WOU was to join the large Latino student population she had heard about.


“I’m like, ‘I want to be part of that,’” Martinez said. “It had the people I wanted to speak to and build a community [with].”

Martinez is approaching the end of her second year at WOU, and in that time, she’s built that community. She’s the current president of Western’s chapter of MEChA, a national student group originally started for Mexican-Americans, though Martinez said it’s open to all students. She also works with The Freedom Center, a student-led group focused on supporting students of color, and she’s a member of Unidos, a club for Latino students.

Brenda Rocio Martinez poses for a photo at Woodburn Fiesta Mexicana in 2022. Martinez is President of MEChA de WOU, and she's a second-year student at Western Oregon University.

Brenda Rocio Martinez poses for a photo at Woodburn Fiesta Mexicana in 2022. Martinez is President of MEChA de WOU, and she's a second-year student at Western Oregon University.

Courtesy of Brenda Rocio Martinez

Although Martinez said there is a lot of peer support and community within those student groups, she would like stronger services for Latino students from the administration.

She wants to see more Latino representation among faculty members and administrators, and more engagement with students on what they want and need.

Students like Martinez, as well as staff and administrators at WOU, recognize that there should be more support for the growing Latino population on campus. As Western faces the same struggles as many universities to maintain enrollment and stabilize budgets, the state’s growing Latino population may play a key role. One of Western’s main strategies to support current and future Latino students is to become what’s called a “Hispanic Serving Institution.”

To serve or to enroll

Hispanic Serving Institutions, or HSIs, were officially created in 1992, according to a nonprofit focused on Latino student success, Excelencia in Education. While the federal label uses the word “Hispanic” to refer to the demographic group the institutions seek to serve, organizations and individuals contacted for this story preferred the word “Latino” or “Latinx” for themselves or the group.

In contrast to other federally-designated “minority serving institutions” such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Tribal Colleges, the majority of HSIs were not created to serve Latino and Hispanic students. Instead, they tend to be pre-existing, predominantly white institutions that have seen major shifts in demographics over the years, said Erin Doran, an associate professor at Iowa State University in the School of Education whose research includes HSIs.

“At the most basic level, and probably the thing that institutions may not openly admit, but … they may chase the designation in order to become eligible for different pools of federal funding,” Doran said. “Public funding for higher education has been on a downward trend, then those streams of money become very important to under-resourced universities and colleges trying to augment their budgets.”

There are now close to 600 Hispanic Serving Institutions in the country, Doran said. According to the U.S. Department of Education, that compares to roughly 100 Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

The largest HSIs include Arizona State University, University of Texas at Austin and much of the California State University system.

The designation opens the door for grants from the U.S. Department of Education, as well as the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Oregon has six HSIs, according to the latest data from Excelencia in Education — four community colleges: Blue Mountain, Chemeketa, Columbia Gorge and Treasure Valley; and two private universities: Mount Angel Seminary and Warner Pacific University.

Interest in the designation is growing, as Oregon’s Latino population continues to increase and more institutions get closer to that enrollment goal.

The Freedom Center is currently located in the Neal W. Werner University Center, Western Oregon University's student union building.

The Freedom Center is currently located in the Neal W. Werner University Center, Western Oregon University's student union building.

Meerah Powell / OPB

Roughly 20 Oregon institutions of higher ed are “emerging” HSIs, meaning their full-time equivalent student enrollment is at least 15% Hispanic/Latino students, but less than the 25% threshold. That includes large institutions like University of Oregon, Portland State University and Portland Community College.

UO announced the creation of a committee last year focused on helping the university become an HSI. Portland State University also has an HSI Exploratory Committee.

Doran said how effectively HSIs actually serve their Hispanic and Latino students really varies from institution to institution.

One of the biggest critiques of the designation, she said, is that the label may only reflect an institution’s success at getting Latino students to enroll. Even though the S stands for “serving,” the label’s only requirement is that an HSI hit that 25% enrollment threshold. There aren’t any requirements for showing that Hispanic and Latino students are graduating, receiving support or being “served” in any particular way.

In her research, Doran said she has seen colleges and universities apply for grants in order to improve services for all students.

“There isn’t necessarily accountability for making sure that the funds are used to improve services to Latinx students and only Latinx students, separate,” she said, but some institutions use the designation “as a way to signal” they’re welcoming places to attend.

Western pursues ‘critically important’ HSI designation

Western is the closest public university in Oregon to hitting that 25% Latino enrollment goal and becoming eligible for those specific federal grants. It’s at about 22%, according to data from the university.

In a statement to OPB, the university said its students are “increasingly from Latinx communities.” According to university data, the Latino and Hispanic student population at Western has grown by roughly 30% since 2010.

But, like most public universities in Oregon, WOU is dealing with an overall decline in enrollment, and shrinking budgets as a result. Western’s student headcount has fallen nearly 40% over the past decade, from roughly 6,200 students to about 3,750 students, according to data from Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

Western says it’s “critically important” for the success of the university and the greater community that it gets that federal designation.

“This means a clear dedication to our students as we create a learning, living, and work environment in which they can be successful,” WOU said.

Many higher education leaders and community members agree.

“Why does it matter that we need to focus on creating Hispanic Serving Institutions?” Osvaldo Avila, inclusion and equity specialist with the HECC, asked at an HSI summit Western hosted last month in Monmouth. “The Latino, Hispanic, Latinx population [is] the fastest growing demographic in Oregon.”

But some Latino and Hispanic students at WOU say the institution needs to make some changes if it wants to truly live up to that label.

“It’d be mostly for getting more money into the school, and yeah, that’s alright, but where’s the support?” Martinez said. “Where’s the representation? We’re looking forward to having more Latino students, but where are those Latino professors?”

At Western’s recent HSI summit, it invited community members, as well as state and national higher education leaders to attend — with the goal of learning from different perspectives and gaining wider support.

The HSI conversation at Western isn’t new. Last month’s HSI summit followed a similar event roughly a year ago.

“This year, we really talked about how we wanted to open this conversation up across our state, because this is really symbolic of how we’re trying to be an institution that actually serves the students that come here, and you can’t do that alone,” WOU President Jesse Peters said at the April summit.

Linda Munguia, a high school counselor at West Salem High School, affirms that WOU has prioritized outreach to Latino students in the Salem area for a long time. Munguia says Western sends out college and financial aid information in English and Spanish and hosts events for Latino students and their families starting as early as elementary school.


“I feel like they’ve kind of been that silent school that has been doing all these things, and [it’s a] long time coming for them to receive this designation,” Munguia said.

Munguia says in her 23 years in the Salem-Keizer School District, Western is “leading the way” among four-year universities when it comes to outreach to Latino students.

“I honestly feel that Western has kind of started that blueprint,” she said.

For some Latino students, Western’s successful blueprint includes their experience on campus.

Julieta Alarcón, a first-year student at Western majoring in bilingual elementary education, said during a student panel at WOU’s HSI summit that she has appreciated having some classes offered in English and in Spanish.

“That’s something that has really made me feel like a stronger sense of community within my culture here at WOU, which I really, really appreciate,” Alarcón said.

Students speak on a panel at Western Oregon University's HSI Summit on April 26, 2023, in Monmouth, Ore.

Students speak on a panel at Western Oregon University's HSI Summit on April 26, 2023, in Monmouth, Ore.

Meerah Powell / OPB

Another student who appeared with Alarcón on that panel, Jesus Emmanuel Villa, enrolled at WOU from Medford.

“When I got here, I was like, ‘Hey, there’s a lot of people like me here.’ … There’s a good amount of Latinx students that I could build kind of like support around,” he said. “I really use that as a fuel to keep going, to help me out as a community of support, and it’s definitely something that makes me feel like I belong here.”

Avila, with the Oregon HECC, said at the summit that those federal grants are a key part of what makes that HSI designation so important to institutions, but it also affects the wider community.

“Why does it all matter? I mean, yeah, you get grants, you get more specific and intentional on increasing your retention rates, or diversifying your staff, diversifying your student body,” Avila said. “But, it all matters because it goes back to the community — a stronger, educated community, more participating community and supportive community.”

The HSI label doesn’t require that colleges improve their retention rates or increase the staff diversity.

WOU said in a statement to OPB that becoming an HSI will allow the university to apply for federal grants to help it “expand and improve wrap-around services for our students,” though it did not go into specifics.

Students are skeptical, data is unclear

“It is nice that the school is trying to become an HSI, but there’s more than just hosting or putting on a summit,” said Martinez, who is among several students disappointed WOU didn’t do more student outreach ahead of the HSI summit. “Our Latino students need a lot of support from the faculty, staff and everyone in higher positions.”

Martinez is not the only student skeptical of the university’s pursuit of the HSI designation.

Western junior Adriana Herrera works with Martinez at MEChA as the club’s secretary.

Adriana Herrera is MEChA de WOU's secretary and a third-year student at the university.

Adriana Herrera is MEChA de WOU's secretary and a third-year student at the university.

Courtesy of Adriana Herrera

“I think there are a lot of Hispanics and people of color here at Western Oregon, but … I feel like we’re used only when it comes to propaganda, so like promotion and marketing and things like that,” Herrera said. “So, I have mixed feelings about Western being an HSI … If they got the name today, they would not be living up to it.”

Like other students OPB talked with, Herrera said they want clarity about what it would mean as far as support for students, and they want more Latino representation among faculty and administration at Western.

Hispanic and Latino faculty make up less than 6% of the total faculty at Western, according to the university’s most recently available data, from fall 2021. White faculty are more than 76%.

Aneli Godinez-Martinez also has mixed feelings. The WOU junior said some spaces on campus feel very diverse and welcoming, like The Freedom Center, where she’s currently co-president. But she says she used to work at another building on campus that reminded her that Western “is a predominantly white institution.”

“I think that if you know where to go, to get help or where you can find other people that are the same identity as you are, that you feel included,” Godinez-Martinez said. “But, I think that there’s a lot of improvement needed in certain buildings on campus.”

Aneli Godinez-Martinez is co-president of Western Oregon University's Freedom Center. The third-year student says she wants more clarity on how the university will support students if it becomes a Hispanic Serving Institution.

Aneli Godinez-Martinez is co-president of Western Oregon University's Freedom Center. The third-year student says she wants more clarity on how the university will support students if it becomes a Hispanic Serving Institution.

Courtesy of Aneli Godinez-Martinez

Evidence that achieving the HSI label results in tangible improvements for Latino students is unclear and complex.

According to a 2019 study from the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, six-year graduation rates at HSIs are significantly lower than the national average, at 43% compared to 57%. But, the study said, that’s likely due to a number of factors: federal graduation statistics only focus on full-time students, and the majority of Latino students who enroll in higher education do so part-time, often because they’re working at the same time. In addition, many Latino students may come from lower-income families, and they may take more remedial classes — both factors which contribute to low retention and graduation rates.

HSI label prompts improvements at another Oregon college

Twenty miles from Western Oregon University is a college that’s already a Hispanic Serving Institution: Chemeketa Community College in Salem.

Chemeketa’s executive dean of student affairs Manuel Guerra-Perez said going for that designation was Chemeketa’s “commitment to diversity,” and a way to “walk the talk.”

“We were trying to help the Latino community identify with us as a place of belonging to them,” Guerra-Perez said.

Guerra-Perez said the college used its first five-year HSI grant of roughly $2.4 million from the U.S. Department of Education on several priorities aimed at helping Latino students at Chemeketa. It made its admissions process more accessible and welcoming, and it hired four bilingual navigators to help students with the financial aid process, advising and career pathways.

“Once this one ends, we are writing a new grant to take a look at, ‘OK, we’re helping them, and we’re getting them here, and now they’re here, but now we have to retain them,’” Guerra-Perez said.

He said the college is looking into developing an “academic support center” to intervene with students early on and keep them on track. The center would also house the college’s food pantry, tutoring and other services.

“We want students to persist from one term to the next, but it’s also very important that they progress,” Guerra-Perez said. “Students can do poorly, what I mean is get under a 2.0 [grade point average], and still persist — but they’re not progressing. They’re repeating courses. So we’re trying to minimize that and track that.”

Instead, Guerra-Perez said the college wants to see students have “clear academic plans” and show progress on them.

According to state data, completion rates for Latino and Hispanic students at Chemeketa have slightly increased from the 2016-17 school year to this past school year, from 43% to 45%.

Guerra-Perez said although the changes spurred by the HSI grant directly help Latino students, they help other students too.

“For example, if we’re looking at the admissions application, and we’re saying Latino students struggle with the admissions application, and they can’t get through certain steps — by identifying that and looking at that student population, it doesn’t mean that it’s just going to benefit them if we change it,” Guerra-Perez said.

He said that’s important as other students of color at Chemeketa — such as Black and Native American students — are also struggling, and the college also wants to make sure it’s addressing their needs.

At Western, Freedom Center co-president Godinez-Martinez agrees that increasing the number of Latino students on campus will help new students of color feel more welcome. But she said her university needs to be clear about what the HSI status would actually mean, especially in terms of adding more support for students.

“I didn’t really know that the school wanted to have the status until we had the summit that was advertised,” she said. “And I don’t know what they’re planning to do with it, which is also why I’m hoping that if we do get it, they will explain to students what they plan to do with it.”