SAN DIEGO -- Most college campuses would be bustling with activity on a weekday morning.
But Alliant University in San Diego is nearly empty. The school serves around 4,000 students -- many of them attending part-time, taking evening or online courses. Like many other small nonprofit colleges around the country, Alliant caters to the needs of its growing minority student body.
Raymond Dale Alvarez Penney has been here for two semesters now. He's a Navy veteran, and was recruited by Alliant at a local community college. He says the school guaranteed him the classes he'll need to graduate.
"Alliant offered and said we can do this in two years for you, we can guarantee your 15 units, and we'll guarantee the classes you'll need to graduate in two years," he says.
Alliant has a high number of Latino students like Alvarez Penney, but it would need to have 25 percent Latino enrollment to qualify as a "Hispanic-serving institution", or HSI.
As an HSI, it could receive up to $2 million over five years from the Department of Education. The money could be used for nearly everything -- from renovations and maintenance to customized courses designed to help retain students.
Alliant has struggled to maintain the 25 percent quota, and it hasn't received HSI funding in the last two years.
Early on a Monday morning, professor Dawn Griffin leads a class of psychology students of all ages, ethnicities and faiths. But she rejects the idea of reaching diversity on campus by meeting quotas or percentages.
"We don't take in individuals because of their ethnicity, we're not tallying up numbers and saying we've got this many of this group," Griffin says. "Because we are targeting specific issues in the Latino community, we are attracting Latinos."
And attracting Latinos is the whole idea. According to a recent Stanford University poll found that only 13 percent of Hispanics have a college degree or higher, compared with 30 percent among Americans overall. That poll also found that Hispanics generally don't have enough money to pay for college, and are reluctant to borrow.
But as the largest and fastest growing minority group in the country, the retention and graduation of Hispanic students is an important mission of the Department of Education.
Aaron Bruce is the director of diversity at San Diego State University, a school that prides itself on having a diverse faculty and student body. But he questions the definition and ultimate goal of being an HSI.
"If you're a smaller university that's just chasing the dollars, becoming a Hispanic Serving Institution can be to your benefit," says Bruce. "But it doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to have Spanish speaking faculty, specific majors designed to support the Hispanic population or even the support networks that might be available at a larger institution, like say, San Diego State."
SDSU has just qualified for HSI funding, which could mean an extra $2 million or more for the school. Bruce says that money will not only benefit Latino students, but also African and Native-Americans -- two smaller but widely under represented groups at most state colleges.
Deborah Santiago says both Alliant University and SDSU represent the challenges of colleges today. She's a researcher with the Washington-based think tank, Excelencia in Education.
"HSIs tend to serve a very large, nontraditional population -- older students, those that are working," says Santiago, who has followed HSIs for years and is studying their progress. "And so how they accommodate and retain these students -- I think they're trendsetters -- other institutions are going to have to learn from them because our population in higher education is going to continue to diversify."
There's no doubt that HSIs are helping to diversify college campuses. The real question, Santiago adds, if they not only boost Latino enrollment -- but also graduation rates.