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In 2011, Cossatot Community College of the University of Arkansas set out to achieve its No. 1 priority -- increase its Hispanic enrollment.

The three-campus college was far from mirroring its community's population. About 11 percent of Cossatot's 1,530 students in fall 2010 were Hispanic, while Hispanics made up more than half of the population of De Queen, the college's main campus.

Now -- nearly seven years later -- that strategic plan has come to fruition.

The college recently earned the designation of being a "Hispanic-serving institution" from the U.S. Department of Education, becoming the first in Arkansas with the title. The designation means at least a quarter of an institution's students are Hispanic. It is not based on an institution's mission, as the one for historically black colleges and universities does, and it does not come at the detriment of students belonging to other races or ethnicities.

Cossatot Chancellor Steve Cole said he was proud of the designation.

"We want to make sure that our students' populations look like our communities," he said. "It matters to us because if it's not matching what the community looks like, someone is being left out and they do not have access to education. We want to make sure they have access to education. We're a community college, so we're about the community, which includes building our workforce. We want to impact economic development, and the way to do that is through education."

With the title, Cossatot will join a group of 472 -- and growing -- institutions across the nation, said Deborah Santiago, chief operating officer and vice president for policy at Excelencia in Education, based in Washington, D.C. Most Hispanic-serving institutions are in California, Texas, Puerto Rico, Florida and New York, she said, though many are emerging in the Midwest and the South.

The label first cropped up in the federal Higher Education Act in 1992, several years after community leaders, predominantly in Texas and New Mexico, noticed that they were enrolling high concentrations of Hispanic students and didn't have an avenue to distinguish themselves to drum up financial support, she said.

The federal law also included a competitive grant program to disburse federal funds to help improve and support Hispanic-serving institutions. The grant program was originally under Title III of the Higher Education Act's Developing Institutions Program, but it was moved to its own spot -- Title IV -- within the annual act in 1998.

Title V funds can be used for a variety of items, including the establishment or improvement of an endowment fund, faculty or curriculum development and support of programs to improve academic success. Other groups -- such as the National Science Foundation -- also reserve grants for Hispanic-serving institutions.

Cossatot's officials are eyeing grant funds for development of a dual-credit, high school bridge program with the aim of improving college readiness, particularly in math, and for efforts to increase access and college readiness, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, for Hispanic students, Cole said.

In 2011, the college realized it was already "way behind the times" in serving its community, Cole said.

"We decided let's do this thing the right way," he said. "We put all those resources and things in place. Well, I think the first thing in recruiting is that if you're going to try to impact a certain group of peoples, it makes sense if you can speak the language, address their cultures because they're different. If you can do those things and have experience those things, then you're going to be more successful because you can talk to the students and their families."

Part of that, he said, was having a staff resembling the community. The college also started hosting informational sessions for the Hispanic community in English and Spanish.

"That has made a tremendous difference," he said. "Instead of saying, 'we want to be' and 'we're going to be,' we put our money where our mouth was."

The college had suspected it could be deemed a Hispanic-serving institution for the last year and a half, but experienced an oversight in the way students were filling out applications, Cole said. The applications allow students to identify with more than one race and ethnicity, and many were, which artificially lowered the college's percentages, he said.

So, in January 2017, Cossatot officials changed part of the application to more accurately determine whether a student is of Hispanic descent, he said.

"I suspect that we'll be the only Hispanic-serving institutions in the state for many, many years," Cole said.

No other college or university in Arkansas has even 20 percent of its total student population identifying as Hispanic, according to fall 2017 enrollment data from the state Department of Higher Education. Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville is in second with about 16 percent of 7,715 students, and the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith third with 12.4 percent of 6,626 students, data show.

University of Arkansas System President Donald Bobbitt said in a prepared statement that the mission of the system and all of its campuses is to provide high-quality educational opportunities to an ever-changing, diverse population.

"As the state's largest higher education system, we are proud that UA Cossatot has earned this distinction by serving a growing Hispanic population that has much to offer this state, first as students and then as future graduates," he said.

Santiago of Excelencia in Education lauded the college for changing its institutional infrastructure to better serve students that it knew were there. But, she also cautioned that the college -- and all Hispanic-serving institutions -- should focus, too, on student success, ensuring that the student population persists and graduates.

Data show that Hispanic students at Hispanic-serving institutions don't necessarily fare better than those at what's known as predominantly white institutions, Santiago said, though there are some exceptions.

At Cossatot, the 56 percent of the 59 Hispanic students who enrolled in fall 2014 graduated within three years, state Higher Education Department data show. About 22.6 percent of the 487 Hispanic students enrolling that same time at the remaining 21 public two-year colleges in Arkansas graduated within three years, state data show.

"While our rates are very high, and we are proud of them, they are not 100 percent," Cole said, adding that the college this year opened the Center for Student Success, open to all students in need. "And we will always strive to get there for all student populations."

A Section on 03/05/2018

Print Headline: UA's Cossatot College earns U.S. designation

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