Beyond an HSI Designation: Exploring Strategic Practices for Grant Participation

Excelencia in Education
6 min readMar 23, 2023

By: Cassandra Arroyo and Deborah Santiago, Excelencia in Education


Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) represent a critical group of institutions enrolling and graduating Latino students. Since 1995, the federal government has allocated funds to HSIs to “to expand educational opportunities for, and improve the attainment of, Hispanic students” through the Title V, Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions program. However, federal funding levels have not kept pace with the growth in HSIs such that less than half (40%) of all eligible received funding in 2020. HSI grant applications require institutions to effectively gather and present institutional data, utilize campus-wide staffing networks, and have a clear understanding of their institution’s needs and priorities to submit a competitive application. The competitive nature of HSI federal funding has increased the importance for HSIs to plan effectively for grant competitions and utilize funds in a sustainable manner that supplements existing institutional efforts. The increasingly limited reach of federal funding has raised questions regarding how institutions participate in HSI federal grant programs and the impact these programs have on sustaining institutional practices that facilitate Latino student success.

  1. What structures do institutions have in place to be able to submit a competitive grant application?
  2. How are institutions sustaining grant-funded efforts after their funding ends?
  3. In what ways does an HSI designation inform the ways institutions conceptualize what it means to be an HSI and serve Latino students?

Excelencia in Education interviewed six HSIs — California State University-Long Beach, California State University-Sacramento, The University of New Mexico-Taos, Texas A&M University-Kingsville, Dominican University, and Hartnell College — to understand how these institutions have participated in HSI federal grant competitions, specifically the Title V and HSI STEM grant programs. Excelencia also sought to understand how these institutions conceptualize what it means for them as an organization to move beyond an HSI designation to intentionally serve their Latino and low-income students.

Strategic Practices in Grant Participation at Six HSIs

Institutions shared their current strategies for preparing federal grant applications, how they have leveraged federal funding to advance and sustain institutional efforts, and what it means to them to be an HSI. From the interviews, the HSIs demonstrated strategies that can refine the way policymakers and HSI advocates approach the way they support HSIs. Although all six of these institutions have received at least one Title V or HSI STEM grant in the past six years, many shared challenges their institution has faced in the grant application, implementation, and institutionalization process. Excelencia identified three common challenges institutions described in our conversations and what types of strategies they have implemented to overcome these challenges.

What types of challenges do HSIs encounter when participating in competitive federal grant programs?

CHALLENGE #1: DECENTRALIZED STRUCTURES AND/OR PERSONNEL FOR APPLYING FOR FEDERAL GRANTS. Institutions described having a decentralized process for preparing, writing, implementing, and assessing the impact of HSI grants. Several institutions detailed how their campus does not have the necessary structures in place or enough personnel focused on advancing HSI initiatives, which makes HSI efforts siloed. Even at institutions that had active HSI grant personnel working on applying for and implementing these grants, the resources and support to engage in this work was sparse.

CHALLENGE #2: DIFFICULTY ACQUIRING INSTITUTIONAL “BUY-IN” TO SUSTAIN INITIATIVES LONG-TERM. Institutions described the complexity of institutionalizing grant-funded projects for long-term sustainability. Institutions found that not all departments or offices in which an HSI grant was implemented were prepared to or supportive of funding these efforts. One institution described how decentralized grant efforts often can lead to siloed work and a lack of collaboration, which makes it difficult to continue the work of grant programs. All institutions expressed that obtaining institutional “buy-in” was an important factor for sustaining grant-funded programs or positions, however, obtaining this support varied across institutions depending on leadership support, institutional budget, and division of roles and responsibilities.

CHALLENGE #3: DEVELOPING AN “INSTITUTION-WIDE HSI IDENTITY.” Institutions discussed how they conceptualized their role as an HSI and what they identified as areas for growth. For these institutions, a lack of centrality in HSI efforts often led to a limited understanding of what it means to be an HSI throughout their campus. While all of the institutions tailored their grant funding to intentionally serve their campus community, the work often operated within specific offices, departments, or programs. Many institutions attribute the insularity of HSI-related initiatives or efforts as a barrier for creating what they describe as an “institution-wide HSI identity”: a shared responsibility across and extending beyond their campus to intentionally serve Latino students.

What types of strategic efforts do HSIs engage in to overcome challenges in competitive federal grant participation?

STRATEGIC EFFORT #1: INTEGRATING CAMPUS OFFICES AND STAFF INTO THE GRANT PROCESS (FORMATION TO IMPLEMENTATION). Institutions addressed an absence in centralized HSI grant personnel by implementing internal processes for grant participation and oversight. One institution holds an internal grant competition across campus for interested faculty, staff, or offices to submit a proposal to the Provost for consideration. At other institutions, leadership reaches out to personnel based on prior grant participation or their alignment with the absolute or competitive priorities set by ED. All institutions extended grant efforts across several offices to successfully apply for and oversee HSI grants in order to foster cross-campus collaboration.

STRATEGIC EFFORT #2: INCORPORATING INSTITUTIONALIZATION PLANS AT THE START OF THE GRANT WRITING PROCESS AND CREATING INSTITUTIONAL ALIGNMENT. Across institutions, those leading grant efforts work diligently to align grant funding with institutional priorities to demonstrate need and push for sustainability at their institution. Some institutions overlap grants by creating enough flexibility in their grant proposals to be able to supplement a previous grants’ funding with a later grant to help sustain their programs. Most importantly, institutions emphasized the importance of assessing “buy-in” at the start of the grant planning process. These institutions often lead conversations with departments or offices involved in the grant by setting the expectation that they will need to commit to funding these programs or positions once the grant ends. These departments and offices then gradually integrate these costs into their budget to continue grant activities throughout the grant’s tenure to help with institutionalization.

STRATEGIC EFFORT #3: ENGAGING WITH EXTERNAL HSI ORGANIZATIONS, FEDERAL HSI GRANT FUNDING, AND ENHANCING HSI CONVERSATIONS AT THE LEADERSHIP LEVEL. Together, these six HSIs recognize that intentionally serving Latino students means moving past an HSI designation and acknowledging that HSI grants represent a critical, although temporary, mechanism for institutional transformation. For some institutions, engaging with HSI grants offered an opportunity for exploration and conversation campus-wide. For one institution, receiving an HSI grant created an opportunity to construct a shared understanding across campus of what it means to be an HSI and their institution’s role in serving Latino students. For other institutions, grant funding provided financial support to strengthen the efforts they already had in place, acting as a way to supplement rather than act in lieu of institutional funds. Several institutions discussed that an ability to define and demonstrate an HSI identity to external national organizations (e.g., HACU, Excelencia in Education), prospective students, and their local community was important to them in going beyond an HSI designation.

Advancing a Policy Agenda for Supporting Institutional Capacity Building

HSIs are the primary facilitator for supporting postsecondary success for Latino and low-income students, yet are low-resourced and face further financial precarity in the economic recession following the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, the abundance and accessibility of funding focused on increasing the capacity of HSIs is critical for these institutions to continue to serve their Latino and low-income students. Title V and HSI STEM funding represent a finite, albeit important mechanism for institutional capacity building at HSIs. Excelencia in Education identifies Institutional Capacity as a key issue area and includes policy recommendations addressing institutional capacity as part of our policy agenda. We make the following recommendations for improving HSIs’ capacity to serve Latino students:

  • Prioritize and significantly increase financial support to institutions serving high numbers of students with financial need and count every student instead of using full-time equivalent.
  • Provide guaranteed funding to all Hispanic-Serving Institutions who meet the eligibility requirements for Title V grants.
  • Refocus and limit the allowable activities for Title III and V grants to better align with Latino student success and in an online environment.
  • Improve information about federal investment in Hispanic-Serving Institutions by increasing transparency around grant outcomes.

To read the full report, Beyond an HSI Designation: Exploring Strategic Practices for Grant Participation, visit Excelencia’s website:



Excelencia in Education

Excelencia informs, leads, & accelerates Latino student success in higher education through research, evidence-based practices, and leadership.