Intentionally Serving Latino Students During the Pandemic: Institutional Investments

Excelencia in Education
7 min readApr 5, 2022

By Gabriel Bermea, Institutional Leadership Manager — Workforce

Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) that listened to and learned from their students intentionally served them by strategically managing their CARES funds and staying focused on their Latino students in both proactive and reactive ways at the height of the pandemic.


The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, provided aid to institutions of higher education to support students in their educational journey, while also managing the impact of the pandemic. Excelencia in Education reviewed how 21 HSIs strategically used their CARES funding to intentionally support Latino, and all, student success in higher education during the pandemic. Five primary areas of investment — 1) Bridging the digital divide, 2) Addressing basic needs, 3) Expanding on campus student employment, 4) Increasing mental health and wellbeing support, and 5) Focusing on faculty development — illustrate how institutions were both proactive and reactive to the pandemic’s impact on their Latino, and all, students.

Investing in Opportunity

At the start of the pandemic, institutions took active steps to identify how the pandemic was impacting their Latino, and all, students. Institutions conducted weekly phone calls, term surveys, and frequent check-ins with Latino students to understand how they were managing the pandemic, assess their current circumstances, determine demand for current resources, and identify the need for new resources to support students. These “student feedback loops” provided institutions critical information to best anticipate and respond to the pandemic’s impact on Latino students. At the height of the pandemic, 21 HSIs saw an opportunity to invest their CARES funding into strategic and intentional efforts to mitigate the impact the pandemic had on Latino students. Five primary areas of investment illustrate how institutions were both proactive and reactive to the pandemic’s impact on their Latino, and all, students (see Figure 1).

Bridging the Digital Divide

During the pandemic, institutions stated Latino students experienced reduced access to technology and had limited or no access to Wi-Fi. Additionally, institutions reported some Latino students did not have the basic computer literacy skills to navigate online learning in an effective manner. Institutions also conveyed an increased financial burden on Latino students as they had to purchase the technology needed to accommodate their online studies. Institutions already had technology to support students; accordingly, institutions proactively scaled up their support by investing heavily in bridging the digital divide. For example, Wilbur Wright College purchased PCs, laptops, and tablets for students to support their transition to online learning. Additional teaching and learning technologies were purchased to enable faculty to deliver course content in multiple modalities and maintain high-quality academic instruction. Institutions expanded campus wi-fi connections and provided hotspots to support online learning.

Addressing Basic Needs

Institutions reported Latino students experienced increases in food and housing insecurity due to loss of income and loss of employment. In extreme cases, institutions reported Latino students experiencing homeless during the pandemic. Institutions strived to address the basic needs of students during the pandemic. Emergency fund and grant programs were already established at a number of these institutions. However, in anticipation of the growing need, institutions invested heavily to scale up support for Latino students. From food, housing, utilities, and transportation, institutions created grants to support students in their efforts to continue their education through the pandemic. Institutions also applied funds to create emergency relief for expenses due to the COVID-19 crisis. For example, San Diego State University’s relief funds aimed to address food insecurities, financial crisis, rent assistance, free hotspots, and more. Where possible, institutions aimed to reduce the cost of attendance for students. Institutions used funds to waive online course user fees and cover the cost of books. Alamo Colleges District paid for testing and test proctoring. Institutions also covered the cost of tuition, fees, and on campus housing for students. As previously noted, institutions also covered the unanticipated cost of technologies such as wi-fi, laptops, and tablets to support student learning during the pandemic. Lastly, institutions applied funds to discharge the debts of students which incurred during the pandemic, and, institutions cleared the outstanding balances of students to support re-enrollment.

Expanding On Campus Student Employment

Institutions reported some Latino students experienced loss of income and loss/reduction of employment during the pandemic. Additionally, due to low enrollment, some institutions reported a reduction in on campus jobs for students. Students reported needing assistance in covering bills such as rent, utilities, and education-related expenses. Undocumented students also experienced high levels of financial insecurity. This issue was further complicated by the fact that undocumented students were not eligible for the federal resources allocated to the institutions. To mitigate the impact the pandemic had on students and their families, institutions took responsive steps by expanding on-campus student employment opportunities. With CARES funds, the University of California, Merced, for example, created new student employment roles to support enrollment and retention efforts. Additionally, institutions, such as the University of the Incarnate Word, increased peer-led learning support efforts by allocating funds to hire more peer mentors and tutors.

Increasing Mental Health and Wellbeing Support

During the pandemic, institutions reported Latino students experienced an increase in stress, anxiety, and depression. As students managed the impact of the pandemic, students reported fears of losing family members, coping with the loss of a loved one, and dealing with the mental and physical stress of the potential consequences of the pandemic. As students strived to maintain their mental health, institutions responded by allocating funds to increase mental health support on their campuses. Institutions invested in virtual mental health services for students. For example, Miami Dade College offered a mental health series to destigmatize the use of mental health services among Hispanic students. To support students’ mental health, institutions also applied funds to provide opportunities for incoming new students and families to visit campus with an overnight stay to help families who have not had the opportunity to visit campus.

Focusing on Faculty Development

The pandemic caused institutions to transition to online learning resulting in Latino students having to adapt to virtual modalities for academic course work. Institutions reported Latinos, along with all students, struggled with this transition given their lack of experience with online learning. Institutions shared that Latino students reported feeling unprepared to keep up with coursework in a virtual format. In some instances, institutions reported students lacked the skills needed for online learning. To support both students and faculty in adapting to online learning during the pandemic, institutions responded by focusing on faculty development. For example, California State University, Fresno allocated funds to provide training and professional development for faculty to support their diverse student populations in non-traditional learning environments. Additionally, institutional efforts supported faculty in their understanding of the many traumas faced by Latino students and families as well as innovative teaching and intervention strategies designed to assist Latino students during the pandemic.

Know Who You Serve

As institutions managed their CARES funds and stayed focused on their Latino students at the height of the pandemic, a primary strategy for these 21 HSIs was to know who their institution was serving and not serving in order to serve their students well. Other institutions looking to scale up their institutional capacity to know who they are serving and not serving may consider applying a few practices from these institutions.

  • Create Opportunities to Listen and Learn from Your Students. These institutions actively created mediums (ex. weekly phone calls, term surveys, and frequent check-ins with Latino students) to listen and learn from their Latino students. By doing so, institutions were able to understand how their students were managing the pandemic, assess their students' current circumstances, and determine the need for current/new resources to support their students. Institutions can start by asking what is the nature of their relationship with their students and how can we create communication mediums to better understand the experiences of our students.
  • Anticipate and Respond to the Needs of Your Students. Because institutions had a better understanding of the students they served, institutions were able to both anticipate and respond to the needs of their Latino students. The institutions knew what resources were critical to their students and what needed to be scaled up to better serve their students. Institutions were able to scale up areas of support (ex. Addressing basic needs), invest in initiatives and resources (ex. Bridge the Digital Divide), and prepare their campus to better educate their students during the pandemic (ex. Focus on Faculty Development). Institutions can start by asking what do your students’ stories and experiences tell you about the work that your institution needs to do to better anticipate and respond to your students’ needs.
  • Invest in Student Identified Opportunities to Serve Your Students. As institutions listened and learned from their students to better adapt campus efforts to mitigate the pandemic’s impact, students identified investment opportunities for their institutions. Institutions actively invested in the areas identified by their students to support their continued growth and development (ex. Increasing Mental Health and Wellbeing Support and Expanding On Campus Student Employment). Institutions can start by asking how their current efforts reinforce that their students are known and valued and partnering with their students to identify scalable initiatives that can be invested in to support student engagement and success.

By listening and learning to their students, anticipating and responding to their student’s needs, and investing in student identified opportunities, other institutions can intentionally strengthen their institutional capacity to serve their Latino, and all, students.

To learn more about HSI CARES Funding appropriation distribution, read Excelencia’s research brief on Hispanic — Serving Institutions and the CARES Act: Preliminary Analysis of Funding.



Excelencia in Education

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