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National Hispanic University Shutting Its Doors


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. This spring, we've been focusing on the challenge of paying for college - something that can be especially difficult for families of color or first-generation college students. Now one institution that was intended to serve one group of students who've often been shut out of college is closing its doors.

The National Hispanic University was founded in 1981. It was later absorbed by a private college chain. It had the goal of doing for Latino students what the historically black colleges and universities have done for African-Americans, which is to provide a culturally sensitive environment in which to excel.

But several weeks ago, the school announced it will close its campus in San Jose, California in the summer of 2015. The move stunned faculty members and about 600 students currently enrolled there. Joe Rodriguez reported on this for the San Jose Mercury News, and he's with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

JOE RODRIGUEZ: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So as we mentioned, a lot of people probably have heard about HBCUs in part because there are a lot of them, and they've been around for more than a century. They were founded during a time of kind of legal, explicit and often violently enforced segregation when blacks couldn't go to other institutions.

But I don't know that the National Hispanic University was ever as well-known, at least in other parts of the country. So could you just tell us a little bit more about what the idea was at its founding?

RODRIGUEZ: OK, the idea of the founding in 1981 - it started in Oakland - was to, as you said, establish a Hispanic university that would be culturally sensitive and, at the same time, accept students who were not expected to go to college. It would be a college that would take extra care with its freshman and make sure that they moved on to their sophomore and junior years.

It moved in 1990 to San Jose partly to take advantage of the money here in Silicon Valley. And the school began to offer classes in business, computer science and mathematics, I think, at the expense of degree programs in Spanish and Mexican-American studies. So when it moved to San Jose, it started to change its mission and its funding sources.

And I think along the way, always wanted to be that culturally sensitive university but had to look for funding. And the money here is based on technology. So they started to offer more technological courses and sort of tried to be too many things.

MARTIN: Too many things. Well, I was going to ask you about that. But we spoke with Alejandra Valla - Alejandra Valladarez (ph). She is a junior there. She's a student leader. And she says her classmates are confused. And it sounds like they were pretty surprised. I just want to play a short clip from our conversation.

ALEJANDRA VALLADAREZ: Some are angry. Some are saddened by the situation. They come to me with complete, you know, trust and hopes that there could be some type of solution. A lot of them are like, is there anyway that we can save the university? Is there any way that we can do something about what we currently find ourselves in? And it's unfortunate to tell them that no.

MARTIN: What - is it a shock? I mean, is it the kind of thing that the problems there, the financial problems were ones that seemed to have appeared suddenly? Joe?

RODRIGUEZ: Oh, this is for me.


RODRIGUEZ: Yes, the university tried to - when it sold itself to Laureate, the for-profit college chain, thought that the money would come through online registration, and it eventually did not. The students like Valladarez that I spoke to felt betrayed. Those were the students who wanted that intimate classroom environment at NHU.

They weren't really sold on the online vision of the university. They were there for the smaller classes, the tutoring that was available to them and that very, very friendly bilingual, bicultural campus atmosphere.

MARTIN: One of the things...

RODRIGUEZ: And they feel...

MARTIN: Go ahead. I'm sorry. I do - wanted to ask is - 'cause we only have a couple of minutes left - is that I mentioned that a lot of the HBCUs were founded more than a century ago at a time when blacks could not go to other institutions.


MARTIN: And that's one reason why segregationists supported them sometimes. Like, for example, former South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond because he didn't want blacks in other institutions.

Now, this is a university being founded in 1981. I wondered if that kind of changed the dynamic of how - what appeal it had for students who, at that point, maybe they didn't feel particularly welcome on these campuses, but they certainly were free to go. Do you think that that's part of it?

RODRIGUEZ: Right. I mean, the student pool was much smaller for the Latino National Hispanic University simply because the state universities, in California especially, had already opened their doors to Latino students. And if you were, you know, a good student in high school in California, you had the option of going to a place like San Jose State University.

And if you were a student who wanted a big campus and all of the things that it offered - you know, sports and laboratories and even planetariums - you were able to go to a state university. NHU was trying to carve out this niche serving students who weren't steered onto the college track. They made an extra effort to find those students in high school. But they're - but they were limited to the students here in San Jose.

So I do think that the timing was off for NHU. I think they tried to carve out that niche, and it just didn't work. And plus, there was - they couldn't find enough investors here in Silicon Valley. And one group that didn't come through were Latino philanthropists. They just didn't contribute to this university as others might have at another time.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. Certainly an important story. Obviously, there's a lot of sadness around this. And so thank you so much for reporting on this for us. Joe Rodriguez is a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News who's been reporting on this story. And he joined us from San Jose, California. Joe, thanks so much for speaking with us.

RODRIGUEZ: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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