The future of higher education in the United States looks a lot like the University of Houston campus does today, with Hispanics making up a growing share of the student body.

Ensuring those students succeed is crucial for the Texas and U.S. economies.

About 18 percent of the nation’s population is Hispanic; that rises to almost 40 percent in Texas, but Hispanics represent just 10 percent of all college graduates who earn a degree in a technical field. Couple those figures with the growing demand for workers with technical skills—known as STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics—and the challenge is clear.

“Our students increasingly look more like me than the people who are making policy decisions,” said Deborah Santiago, chief operating officer of Excelencia in Education, which advocates for Hispanics in higher education.

Santiago was addressing a conference held on the UH campus earlier this year for administrators and faculty from colleges and universities with large and growing Hispanic enrollments. The goal was to identify and promote programs that help Hispanic students thrive, especially in STEM programs.

But it’s not just about having more Hispanic students earn degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, Santiago said.

What works for Hispanic students also helps everyone else.

Andrew Hamilton, associate dean for student success in the UH College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, served as co-organizer for the conference, funded by a $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

“It’s important that we find a way to do this work better,” he said. “We can’t wait.”

The urgency is driven by demographics— 30.6 percent of the UH student body is Hispanic, along with 43 percent of Houston residents. More than half of K-12 public school students in Texas are Hispanic, and Hispanics are expected to make up more than half of Texas’ higher education enrollment by 2050.

Despite their growing numbers, the students can feel alone and overwhelmed.

“I didn’t have anyone to tell me, that’s not a great idea,” Isabella Torres said of decisions she made during her first few semesters as an electrical engineering major at UH.

Saori Hernandez, a nursing student at Houston Community College, echoed that, describing a meandering path through classes that didn’t count toward a degree. “I could have avoided a lot of wasted money if someone had been there to say, maybe that’s not the best idea.”

These students are clearly smart—Torres is a Tier One scholar at UH, while Hernandez was valedictorian of her high school class—but they know they don’t have all the answers. Often their families don’t, either.

Mentors matter, whether that mentor is a Hispanic student or faculty member or someone else who has been there and can offer advice and a friendly ear.

UH could be uniquely positioned to help find solutions.

Hispanic-Serving Institution, or HSI, is a federal designation for accredited nonprofit colleges and universities where Hispanics make up at least 25 percent of total enrollment and at least 50 percent of students qualify for need-based financial aid. About 14 percent of U.S. colleges and universities meet that standard, but only 10 are Tier One research universities like UH. Five of the 10 are in California.

The problem isn’t new, but Hamilton said current approaches—including scholarships targeting Hispanic students enrolled in specific disciplines—haven’t worked. And with intense workforce demand for college graduates with strong technical skills, the pressure is on. Hamilton and his team are working to expand existing student support programs and partnerships, while adding new ones.

Both community colleges and four-year universities have to succeed with Hispanics in order to remain relevant in the coming decades, Hamilton said. That will require institutional change.

But individual success stories matter, too, even if that success isn’t one-size-fits-all.

“It’s taken me almost six years to get my bachelor’s in mathematics,” said Mariah Ochoa, a student at The University of Texas-Arlington.

Public universities are pushing students to finish in four years, partly because it is less expensive for the students, but Ochoa said that wasn’t realistic for her. She dropped out to work full time at one point.

The longer timeline didn’t stop her from earning a summer research fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an achievement she attributed to encouragement from a professor.

“If he hadn’t told me I could do it, I would have just dreamed it,” she said.

Torres, too, will take longer than four years to graduate, as she juggles school, work and family.

“How do I explain to my parents, who haven’t been to college, that as an engineering student I can’t go to every birthday party or baby shower?” she asked. “How do I tell a potential employer that my GPA would be higher if I didn’t have to work?”

She’s going to make it, but she offered some advice for university leaders working with the students who come after her.

“There needs to be a clear path,” she said. “Every time you turn the corner, there’s a new obstacle. It’s easy to lose hope.”