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Bans on diversity, equity and inclusion may halt Latino progress in higher education

Bans on diversity, equity and inclusion may halt Latino progress in higher education

Kelly Solis’ 2020 freshman year at University of Texas at Austin, the state’s flagship, began with online classes, in forced isolation, because of the pandemic. She moved into a dorm to make connections, but struggled with loneliness and depression.

Her lifeline came when she heard a Latino therapist speak at the annual welcoming program for Latino students, Adelante, organized by Latinx Community Affairs, a student group at the university’s Multicultural Engagement Center. The help from the therapist and other academic and personal support she got with regular visits to the center eventually led her to drop thoughts of transferring to a school in her hometown of Houston.

“I had an instant support system from peers and mentors,” Solis, now a graduating senior, told NBC News. She said staff members would send her information on scholarships and other resources. “If they saw fliers with opportunities, they would pass it my way.”

It was crushing, then, when the university shuttered the Multicultural Engagement Center and defunded Latinx Community Affairs, which organizes Latino-focused programs including Adelante to keep students at the university and guide them to graduation and professional life, Solis said. Other groups at the center suffered the same fate.

Texas has energetically climbed aboard the conservative and right-wing campaign to eliminate public, corporate and nonprofit diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs. Its anti-DEI law, and laws and policies like it in other states, are wiping away tools like those that Solis tapped.

Latino enrollment in higher education institutions has been growing with the Hispanic population, and Latinos have made substantial strides in earning college degrees. But the elimination of DEI programs is occurring as Latinos’ degree-earning is still failing to keep pace with that of white students.

The share of white Americans 25 and older with a bachelor’s degrees or more, 41.8%, was twice that of Hispanics, 20.9%, in 2022, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

‘We have to worry about access again’

Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, said about the DEI bans that the “elephant in the room is racism.” The elimination of programs and events such as the closing of UT Austin’s Multicultural Engagement Center or the Latinx Graduation are “politically motivated and ideologically driven,” he said.

“Demographically, the nation is going in the other direction,” Flores said, alluding to the growing diversification in the country. “Maybe what is undergirding all of this is the unfounded fear that some of the folks who have been historically monopolizing the positions of power are fearful they are going to lose that. They need to make room for the populations that are emerging.” 

Flores noted that the Department of Labor has projected that in the decade ending in 2030, three of every four workers — 78% — joining the American labor force will be Hispanic. 

“The nation as a whole is increasingly dependent on populations like Latinos and Latinas, and we need to increase our educational attainment, especially in higher education, so we can be better prepared as the backbone of America’s labor force, to sustain the prosperity of the nation. That’s what they don’t get. This is not about particular communities, it’s about the well being of the nation, the state,” Flores said.  

A New York Times investigation examined thousands of emails and texts from conservative institutions spearheading the movement against DEI policies and found “unvarnished views on race, sexuality and gender roles,” including comments like “the core of what we oppose is anti-discrimination.”

In Texas, Hispanics are the largest population, and the state’s growth is attributable to increases in the numbers of Hispanic, Black, Asian American and other nonwhite people.

But UT Austin, Texas’ flagship, only enrolled enough Hispanic undergraduates to qualify as a Hispanic Serving Institution, or HSI, in 2021, 138 years after it was founded. To be an HSI, at least 25% of the full-time student population is Latino. Over 40% of Texans are Hispanic, slightly outnumbering non-Latino whites.

Other flagships have also done poorly in enrolling Latino students. In Texas, 39.4% of white people had a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 16.1% of Hispanics, a slightly larger gap than in 2007, according to the Texas Demographic Center.

Excelencia in Education, which began tracking HSIs 20 years ago, initially focused on improving Latino enrollment. But as outreach to Latinos improved and enrollment rose, Excelencia shifted to training universities in getting more degrees in Latinos’ hands.

Deborah Santiago, co-founder and CEO of Excelencia in Education, said the organization grants its Seal of Excelencia to institutions committed to serving Latino students and accelerating their degree-earning, which her group calls “intentionality.” It gave the seal in 2020 to UT Austin, where the six-year graduation rate for Hispanics earning bachelor’s degrees reached 82% in 2022.

When the seal was awarded, UT Austin’s President Jay Hartzell stated that UT Austin “is deeply committed to supporting the academic success of Latino students in higher education and making this a more welcoming and inclusive campus for all students.”

He listed in the statement UT’s efforts to earn the seal, including developing mentorlike relationships with Latino students, gathering faculty, staff and alumni to engage Latino students in their community, and developing specific programs to attract and support students in disciplines across campus. 

Mentioning and encouraging those initiatives today would bring a rain of fire with possible penalty from the state and backlash from conservatives on the lookout for breaches of the new state law. 

“No one wants to be the first institution sued. They [universities] are defaulting by taking out anything that is specific and I do think that is a challenge to intentionality and serving students,” Santiago said. 

“We thought the country was in a good place in terms of access and acknowledging Latino growth in the college age population and strategies to do outreach and engagement. But now we have to worry about access again,” she said.

A university that qualifies as an HSI is eligible for additional federal money that is unaffected by state laws and is not confined to be spent only on Latino students. There are 571 HSIs in 28 states and Puerto Rico, and they enroll 62% of Latinos in college, according to Excelencia in Education analysis.  

The anti-DEI law didn’t stop Texas officials from pouring $12 million of state and UT System funds into the establishment of the Civitas Institute, a new college pushed by conservative lawmakers and donors who said it brought “intellectual diversity” to UT. Civitas is promoted as a think tank focused on individual liberty and limited government, but Texas’ Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick once tweeted that the purpose of the institute, which was originally called Liberty Institute, was to stop critical race theory, a discipline focused on studying systemic and institutional racism but often used as a catch-all term for race and ethnicity studies.

NBC News reached out to the governor’s office, UT at Austin and UT System by phone and email and did not receive responses.

Worries over what comes next

Texas A&M in College Station, Texas, Texas Tech in Lubbock and others also shut down DEI offices to comply with Texas’ law. In other parts of the country, the University of Tennessee in Knoxville has renamed its DEI office because of the state’s new anti-DEI law, the Daily Beacon reported. Students and universities in Utah are bracing for the impact of their recently signed law.

The University of Florida announced last Friday it had eliminated DEI positions, closed the Office of Chief Diversity Officer and ended DEI-focused contracts with vendors.  

At UT Austin, Solis had found so much support she decided to give back to the university. She became co-director of the Latinx Community Affairs group and organized the 2023 Adelante to welcome the latest group of Longhorn Latinos.

Now, she and other worry about what comes next.

The Latino Community Affairs group was left to scramble to avoid canceling its annual Latinx Graduation, which celebrates about 300 Latinos and their families in English and Spanish.

Andrea Morquecho, a first-generation University of Texas at Austin student, was looking forward to the event and having family from Mexico attend. Last year she went with her friend’s parents, who don’t speak English.

“Their excitement during this ceremony was incomparable to the other graduation, because it was in Spanish,” Morquecho said. “I looked forward to hearing the words of encouragement from the Latino guest speakers who understand the obstacles many of us overcame.”

Texas Exes, UT’s former students association, has announced it would host the Latinx Graduation and other cultural graduations, the Daily Texan reported

For the past two spring semesters, Liany Serrano, another Latino Community Affairs leader, has organized the Latinx Leadership Institute that brings in guest speakers from technology, politics, health care and other industries for networking and workshops.

“We provided ways for [Latino students] to meet people that could give them jobs after they graduate,” she said, “but now we don’t have funding to put on LLI. They’re going to miss making those connections.”

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Suzanne Gamboa

Suzanne Gamboa is a national reporter for NBC Latino and NBCNews.com

Iris Kim

Iris (Yi Youn) Kim is a reporter for NBCU Academy’s Storytellers.

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