An Investment in Latino Opportunity
Excelencia in Education cofounder and CEO Deborah A. Santiago wants to change how America talks about and serves the country’s Hispanic college students
In 2019, 3.6 million Hispanic students were enrolled in college, up from 2.9 million in 2010, according to Pew Research. The pandemic had an adverse effect on that growth trend, which became a prominent part of the storyline in 2021. But as Deborah A. Santiago sees it, the conversation about America’s Latinos in higher education has for too long been focused on deficits and achievement gaps.
To rebalance the discussion—and create better outcomes for these students—she cofounded Excelencia in Education. “Excelencia is a great cognate,” said Santiago, the advocacy organization’s CEO. “Looking at issues in higher education with a Latino lens can and should be about excellence.”
Since 2004, the organization has pushed for a more positive vision of how schools can change their practices to better serve the fastest-growing cohort of students in America. -“We’ve seen more and more institutions paying attention to this community and its needs,” Santiago told The Elective. “We’ve seen progress.”
This is work Santiago is uniquely suited for. She served in the U.S. Department of Education in the late 1990s and as a White House adviser on Hispanic education during the Clinton administration, and she’s one of the country’s most respected advocates for changing policy and improving services to welcome more Latino students into higher ed. “A lot of what we do at Excelencia is ignorance abatement,” she explained, laughing. “Stupidity, you can’t do a lot about. But ignorance is just not knowing, and we can do something about that.”
Santiago recently spoke with The Elective about her original aim in founding Excelencia and what she sees as the most pressing issues for Latino students today.
You cofounded Excelencia in Education in 2004 after serving in some high-profile policy roles. What motivated you to start your own advocacy organization?
I really felt like there was a voice missing in so many of the rooms where decisions get made. We weren’t focused on who our students were and what they really needed. As a Latina going through education, I didn’t see a lot of others who were like me. And a lot of the stories I heard were deficit-based, which didn’t match with my experience. When you believe in something, and you don’t see it existing, you create it! And that’s what we did with Excelencia in Education.
How did you imagine changing the conversation? How do you gauge your impact with Excelencia?
The focus in Latino education when we got started almost 20 years ago was very deficit-based: lots of focus on high school dropouts, English-language learners, undocumented immigrants. But the majority of us are U.S.-born, English-speaking, high school graduates. We felt like we needed to focus and create a more realistic voice for that emerging population of students. We felt like we needed to bring positive attention to positive things making a positive difference—and reject this deficient narrative. People might throw money at a crisis, but they invest in opportunity.
I think it feels a little different now than it did two decades ago, but there’s still such pervasive ignorance about our population. I feel like we’re still having Latino 101 conversations when I’m ready to be having 301-level discussions!
What are the most important drivers of Excelencia’s work with colleges and universities? What guides you?
The three core elements we look for are data, practice, and leadership. You’ve got to know who you’re serving and who you’re not. Do you know what your profile is of your students? What’s your Latino graduation rate? What percentage of your students are Hispanic? Believe it or not, we still find institutions that don’t know their student composition.
It’s fine to say, “We serve all students!” But if you were truly serving all, we wouldn’t see gaps in access, in retention, in success. You’ve got to disaggregate your data so you can see opportunities to invest, to change, to serve differently. You need the awareness, the analysis, the action, and data are key to all of that.
We’re also looking for evidence-based practices. Things like a well-designed first-year experience, learning communities, mentorship programs. Cohort models work well for all students; they work especially well for underrepresented students. Low-income students, students of color—they need a network of support. Are your Latino students participating fully in those programs?
Many times, students of color do well despite the institution, not because of it. Can you tell us what you’re investing in that explains why your data is positive? A strategic plan tells you so much about whether an institution is really committed to students or not. We ask a lot about organizational culture, diversity in hiring, how faculty and staff are evaluated. We want to see a higher standard and expectation in the way you’re serving Latino students.
A lot of Excelencia’s work is in helping colleges and universities identify changes they need to make to become welcoming and supportive of Latino students. How do you convince schools to take on that work?
If what you’re motivated by is social justice, this is a no-brainer for you. If you believe in education as a fundamental right, then this absolutely must be a priority. But sometimes we have to think of enlightened self-interest. For years, we kept saying the nation simply can’t meet its goals for educational attainment without a tactical plan for Latino students. If you want more college graduates, you can’t get to where you want to get without us. I’ve seen some acknowledgment and some awareness of it.
One out of every two people paying into social security in the coming decades is going to be Black or Brown. We need to invest in their opportunity to succeed. It’s really about persuading those who have power to share it, instead of trying to hold onto it in a way that’s going to alienate and divide the country.
"We felt like we needed to focus and create a more realistic voice for that emerging population of students. We felt like we needed to bring positive attention to positive things making a positive difference."
Can you give me an example of how understanding cultural context can change the way you approach college conversations?
Think about the importance of family for a lot of the students we serve. It’s very nuanced. For many of us, our family is our strength, our support system and structure. That’s especially true for first-generation students.
But family is also something you prioritize when you’re making life decisions, like where to attend college. So much of the conventional wisdom is that you go to the best institution you can get into, in terms of prestige and financial aid and resources, no matter where that is. But the unexpected cost of going further away can be overwhelming for some families. What happens for fall break, holidays, spring break, Christmas? You have to pay for people to travel. If you get sick, if you need help, who do you turn to? If you need to be there to help your family, how do you do that?
As advisers, we have to account for all of that. What is a good fit for the student, not just the best institution you can get into based on metrics that don’t necessarily reflect a family’s needs and values. That’s not to say students shouldn’t be able to travel and go to school across the country. It’s just that you need to acknowledge where the students are coming from.
In November, you traveled to Puerto Rico to accept the Association for the Study of Higher Education’s Presidential Medal, the first ever given to a whole organization instead of an individual. What did that moment mean to you?
For us to be recognized as an entire organization was powerful. And to be recognized by an academic entity like ASHE meant a lot. We are not a think tank, but we ground our work with data and analysis to inform and compel action. It was very validating to be recognized for adding value to the field—for being a resource to researchers and practitioners and faculty, as well as students. Excelencia is contributing to how people think about these issues, and that’s hugely rewarding.
It was also a point of personal privilege that I was able to accept it in Puerto Rico. My parents grew up there, so it had special meaning for me. To be able to accept it there was powerful. I still feel connected to the island.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.