Most executive directors of non-profit educational organizations burn out. It’s just an expected result of running an organization with limited resources and excessive hours.
And then there’s Antonio Flores who was named president and executive director of the San Antonio, Texas-based Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) in 1996. Persistent, resolute and tireless, 68-year-old Flores is committed to improving everyone of the colleges that HACU serves. In fact, those colleges educate three million Latino students or nearly two thirds of the Latinos attending college in the U.S. About 25 percent of its undergraduate members attend Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), which are growing in number and stature.
Under Flores’ leadership, HACU has tripled its membership from 161 colleges to 489 colleges, fought to increase federal funding and secured millions of dollars in private funds.
In this question and answer interview, Flores explains HACU’s main accomplishments and what keeps him going as he celebrated his twentieth anniversary of running HACU.
Hispanic Outlook: Most executive directors at educational non-profits burn out. What keeps you going after 20 years?
Antonio Flores: I think three things keep me going: 1) First of all is my strong commitment and passion for the mission of this organization, which is to champion Hispanic success in higher education; 2) Recognizing that although we’ve achieved a great deal since I joined HACU that we’ve just scratched the surface and need to close the persistent gap in educational attainment between Hispanics and the rest of the country; 3) The tremendous sense of satisfaction and reward of what we do is reflected on the faces of young people who earn degrees, and the many we help move from college degree to employment. Everything we do as an organization energizes me.
HO: After 20 years at HACU, what accomplishments are you proudest of?
Antonio Flores: One of our main tasks is to advocate for people we represent. We’ve persuaded Congress to invest nearly $3 billion over the last 20 years in programs that are geared toward advancing Hispanic success at HSIs. But also what’s begun to take root is many more colleges are embracing and making their own identities.
HO: What benefits do most of your member colleges want from HACU?
Antonio Flores: Of course the HSI’s want us to continue to generate funding from Congress and the government, so they can do an even better job of serving Latinos. Secondly, they want us to bring them together at our annual conference and regional meetings, so they can share what’s working best in advancing the educational success of Latinos and discuss best practices. They also want us to continue to offer the internships that have led to 12,000 internships. Most are paid internships, many with the federal government and over the last 10 years, increasingly with corporations.
HO: In many, if not most, states, college funding has been cut. What problems is this creating for colleges that serve Latinos?
Antonio Flores: It diminishes their capacities to enroll the growing number of students who want to go there. They can’t provide the quality of faculty and everything that goes with increasing enrollment. It also forces them to increase fees and raise tuition to make up for that deficit. Therefore, students have to come up with more money for resources they don’t have and must borrow. That leads to horror stories of so many students saddled with debts.
HO: What specifically can colleges with large Latino student bodies do to counteract these budgetary cutbacks?
Antonio Flores: We need to persuade legislators on state and federal levels to make higher education a priority rather than building prisons, one of the fastest growing sectors. We need to switch to remediation in prison and human capital development. We have to persuade policy makers that they have to invest more and not cut in areas of education and workforce development.
HO: For example, which colleges have taken the lead to overcome these budget cuts?
Antonio Flores: Practically all of them are doing something. What comes to mind is one of the largest public higher education systems in the country is California State University, which enrolls close to half a million students. It had to reduce and shrink enrollment from year to year due to government cuts during the recession and beyond. They had to come up with ideas to stretch dollars and think about how to get new revenue from the private sector. Many developed strong developmental offices to knock on the doors of corporations and foundations to ask them for help. If you ask 23 California state campuses, they’ll give you clear examples of what they did.
HO: The number of Latino alumni is growing. What role can they play?
Antonio Flores: We’d like alumni to be more engaged in support of their alma maters and make every effort to target funding for financial and scholarships for Latinos, especially those from low income backgrounds who might not go to college without additional help. These alumni are role models and can serve as mentors to help young people succeed.
HO: The Higher Education Act is due for reauthorization. What would you like to see happen with it?
Antonio Flores: We’d like to see an expanded version of Title V, the main title of the law that supports HSIs, and is now inadequate. Because every year about 30 new HSI’s emerge, and the money isn’t growing; the funding has remained stagnant. Therefore, the money is diluted for more institutions. We’d like to see a greater understanding by Congress of how critical Latinos are for the well-being of the entire nation.
HO: Latino population is the fastest growing population in the U.S., and we need more Latino STEM majors. What would you like to see the National Science Foundation (NSF) do to accomplish this goal?
Antonio Flores: We’d like NSF to set up a program specifically to help HSI’s develop more and better capabilities in the STEM field, so more Latinos students can get the benefit of these programs. The House has passed this bill, but the Senate hasn’t acted.
HO: Increasingly, the children of the top 10 percent of earners get into college, and the bottom 25 percent find it hard to pay for college. What changes would you like to see happen to change this inequality?
Antonio Flores: I’d like to see three things: 1) The federal investment needs to be increased in higher education for student aid, so lower-income families can support their kids; 2) I’d like states to come back to levels that operated 20 years ago; 3) I’d like to see the private sector and big corporations that benefit from top-notch labor from university graduates invest more money in education, rather than what Google and Apple are doing, by putting millions of dollars into foreign banks.
HO: But Latinos still lag behind other groups in terms of college attainment. Pew Research Center reported just 15 percent of Latino’s earned a bachelor’s degree compared to 40 percent of Whites and 20 percent of African Americans. What can be done to improve that figure?
Antonio Flores: More than half the battle for Latino success in higher education has to be won in K-12 classes. State and federal governments have to target more resources where there is a higher number of Latinos. Latinos today are the most segregated students in K-12, more so than African Americans. In most of their districts, they don’t have the most qualified teachers or the most rigorous curriculum or are well-prepared for college success. The more remediation they need, the less chance they have of finishing their degree.
HO: How long can you keep going?
Antonio Flores: I’m approaching that inevitable day when I can say, “Okay, someone needs to come in and do this job, yet I don’t know when that will be.” As long as my health holds up, and wife supports me, and I can continue to deliver high quality work, I’ll keep going.
HO: To what do you attribute HACU’s success?
Antonio Flores: There are several factors including the great team of people in San Antonio, Washington, D.C. and Sacramento, our members and our governing board, and we’ve become a better known organization with federal agencies and corporate partners. •