The issue of how to understand US racial history has long been central to debates about the soul and character of the nation (Noboa 2006; Omi and Winant 2008). Questions about whose stories are archived and displayed, whose community history is seen as “American” history, and which racial groups are centralized in literature and the arts, for example, motivate debates about how we should commemorate national holidays, build museums, and how we write textbooks (Brown 2015; Morning 2008; Shackel 2003). Ethnic studies has long been at the heart of ensuring that ignored histories are told and that systemically neglected communities are centered (see Banks 2006; Sleeter 2011). The field has borne witness to the condition of African American, Asian American, Native American, and Latino communities, underscoring these groups’ contributions to the nation and revealing the ways that social hierarchies and racism have been central to the US nation-state project (Sleeter 2011). It is through this effort that we have learned how to understand the various contours of American nationalism and the country’s enduring systems of racial inequality.

In this article we examine one facet of ethnic studies in the US—Latino studiesFootnote 1 and its ethno-national predecessors (i.e., Chicano and Puerto Rican studies)—to provide the first quantitative analysis of the field’s curricular growth and development in the United States. Drawing on a unique data set compiled from NCES, we show that, across six decades, Latino studies witnessed an early period of robust programmatic growth in the 1960s and 1970s, followed by a longer stretch of relative stagnation and meager expansion. Indeed, even though Latinos now make up close to 20% of the US population (US Census Bureau 2021), and the number of Hispanic-serving institutions (HSI) has more than doubled since 2000, fewer than 4% of current colleges and universities have an established Latino studies program or department. Today, there are eighty-nine such degree-granting programs/departmentsFootnote 2 across all of US higher education. Our data also reveal stark patterns, showing that more recently established programs are significantly more likely to be staffed by lecturers and affiliate and contingent faculty. Of the limited set of programs established since 2000, for example, nearly 40% have zero tenure-track core faculty. Newer programs are also significantly less likely than more established ones to describe their efforts as rooted in social and/or racial justice. Overall, we find that Latino studies growth since the 1970s has been severely limited and resource-constrained.

Assessing Latino studies growth patterns is critical for at least two reasons. First, it reveals where and when intellectual investments have taken place in Latino studies and can provide insight as to whether demography, geography, or other factors are correlated with program establishment. We show a wide gap between Latino population growth, Latino student enrollment, and HSI growth, on one hand, and Latino studies program foundings, on the other, suggesting that these factors may only marginally motivate intellectual investments. For example, of all 319 four-year Hispanic-serving institutions, we find that only twenty-nine currently have a Latino studies program. HSI status, despite its growth and increased attention over the past decade, appears to have minimal impact. At the same time, we find that geography and public/private status matter. At the inception of the discipline, most Latino studies programs in the nation were founded in public universities across the US Southwest (California) and the East Coast (New York) after periods of student strikes and related social movements. Of the few programs established since 2000, however, most are at private colleges concentrated in northeastern and midwestern states such as Amherst College (Massachusetts), Bowdoin College (Maine), and Lake Forest College (Illinois). In stark contrast to the public investment from decades ago, we find that only six public universities have founded a new Latino studies program during the past twelve years.

Second, understanding how Latino studies programs represent themselves on their websites provides insight into how the expression of intellectual efforts is patterned. Our finding that older, more established programs are significantly more likely to describe their efforts as rooted in social and racial justice suggests that time periods and the condition of programmatic establishment matter for characterizing intellectual projects. Future research can better discern exactly what mechanisms account for this relationship. It may be, for example, that newer programs face neoliberal economic constraints and tenuous campus climates in a manner that translate into a more politically benign description of their intellectual efforts. Whatever the case, our findings suggest that, across programs, Latino studies descriptions are varied rather than uniform.

In the following discussion, we first review the literature on ethnic studies generally and Latino studies in particular. We describe the academic, social, and political motivations for the rise of these fields and then review research on the links between ethnic/Latino studies courses and student well-being and performance. We then turn to the more particular question of Latino studies founding and growth and describe our data and results. We end by discussing our study’s implications and comment on how the tenuous growth and relative invisibility of Latino studies adversely affects all student well-being, the Latinx academic pipeline, and national conversations on race and ethnicity.

Ethnic and racial studies

The civil rights movement was a watershed in US history. Not only did it highlight omnipresent discrimination and social exclusion, but it also brought to broad public discussion the insidious ways that racism and racial inequality were systemically embedded into everyday parts of US life. Activists soon lobbied for subsequent policy reforms, including affirmative action, and increased government attention to racial inequality in education, among many other things, to help mitigate the impact of centuries of inequality (Berrey 2015; Valdez 2015).

Official ethnic studies programs at colleges and universities emerged from and in concert with this important civil rights activism. Established first in California, student-led movements had historical roots in the efforts of Black liberatory intellectual projects, including those emerging in historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Freedom Schools, Native American tribal schools, and broader anticolonial intellectual and political movements on the US southwestern border and Puerto Rico (Sleeter 2011). The first ethnic studies program was established at San Francisco State in 1968, and the effort moved quickly across California and major East Coast metropolitan regions. Key to ethnic studies, including Black, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Native, and Asian American studies efforts, is the broader effort to reveal how institutionalized racism structures US life and dehumanizes the experiences of minoritized communities (de los Ríos et al. 2015; Vasquez and Altshuler 2017). As such, it focuses on understanding and dismantling the effects of colonization, restricted citizenship, and racial hierarchies. At its core, then, ethnic studies serves to inform all groups, not simply communities of color, and contribute to the broader project of human liberation (Sleeter 2011).

Since its inception, ethnic studies has become integrated in the broader K–12 curriculum, and decades of research shows that, overall, it has had positive effects on academic and social outcomes for both white students and students of color (Sleeter 2011). On average, college students of color who take ethnic studies courses have higher graduation rates (Sueyoshi and Sujitparapitaya 2020), a stronger “academic identity” (Marrun 2018), and a greater sense of empowerment (Sleeter and Zavala 2020; Marrun 2018) compared with their counterparts who do not take such courses. Among high school students, research shows that integrating ethnic studies courses into course schedules raises overall GPA and increases attendance among all students. High school graduation rates and college enrollment rates for all students, including white ones, are also all positively correlated with the presence of ethnic studies in high schools (Irizarry and Garcia 2021).

Despite the mounting research that illustrates the positive impacts of ethnic studies, the field’s continued development has not been without controversy. Ethnic studies has faced backlash since its inception, and recent challenges to critical pedagogy have been influential. Most recently, the push to eliminate diversity, equity, and inclusion programs as well as intersectionality and discussions of systemic racism from K–12 and higher education curriculums has placed ethnic studies in the crosshairs across the country. As of this writing, at least 130 bills have been proposed across thirty-six states that would limit teaching about race, racism, gender, and sexuality (see McGhee and Ray 2022). In Texas, Senate Bill 3, passed at the end of 2021, for example, prohibits teachers from discussing “widely debated and currently controversial issues of public policy or social affairs” and mandates state oversight on how teachers teach issues like race and racism (Texas State Legislature 2021b). One version of the bill (Texas State Legislature 2021a), signed by the Texas governor, specifically removed the requirement to teach “the history of white supremacy, including but not limited to the institution of slavery, the eugenics movement, and the Ku Klux Klan, and the ways in which it is morally wrong” (Texas State Legislature 2021a). The bill also revised a list of figures, topics, and texts that were once required to be addressed in social science curriculum in Texas by eliminating the following issues: Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Native American history, the Chicano Movement, Women’s suffrage, and writings by Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, and Frederick Douglass (Zou 2021). And in Florida, HB 7, which bans the teaching of some core ideas in ethnic studies, such as racial discrimination and systemic racism, was passed in July of 2022 and codified into state law (Florida State Legislature 2022). These important sociopolitical issues portend challenges for Latino studies expansion in this moment. Yet, we recall that Latino studies was born out of struggle.

Developments in Latino studies

Latino studies in the United States officially began in the late 1960s as Chicano or Raza studies in California and as Puerto Rican studies in New York. In the Midwest, where some Puerto Rican and Mexican American communities lived in close proximity to one another, combined Chicano/Puerto Rican studies and Latino studies programs also emerged in ways that accounted for distinct community experiences and shared positionalities (Aparicio 1999). Inspired by the efforts of African American civil rights leaders, many Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans sought to bring to light the racial injustices that their communities had faced historically (Mize 2019).

Among Chicano activists, building Chicano studies meant underscoring how US settler colonialism and its immigration system fomented racial subordination and reinforced racial terror across the Southwest. Activists thus pointed to how the US repatriation campaign that “compelled” more than 400,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans to leave the country in the 1930s (Gutiérrez 2016), widespread Mexican–American lynching at the hands of US law enforcement (Gómez 2020), and systemic poverty and segregation of Mexican schoolchildren (Acuña 1972) all contributed to the continued oppression of Mexican Americans (Acuña 2011). Importantly, Chicano activists also developed a new consciousness that centered Indigenous connections and rejected the often assimilationist and accommodationist politics of the generations that preceded it (Gómez-Quiñones 1990). Recentering their Indigenous roots and striving toward Atzlán, this new Chicano identity was a rejection of “white” shield politics and a call for a radically different, racially just future for Mexican Americans and others (Mize 2019).

The movement sent shockwaves through academia, spurring demands to establish college courses that centered Mexican American experiences and brought to light issues of injustice. In the 1960s, college activists developed El Plan de Santa Barbara, which linked Mexican American subordination to an unjust and segregated US education system (Acuña 2011). After persistent demands, Chicano studies departments first began in Los Angeles and then spread throughout California and other parts of the Southwest in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Puerto Rican student movement emerged at roughly the same period as the Chicano Movement and sought to reveal how the community faced oppression in the United States. Pointing to high rates of poverty and unemployment and low rates of high school completion, the movement made important demands for change in US East Coast and Midwest barrios (Fernández 2020). Activists also made a bold stance against US colonial domination, rejecting accommodationist politics and calling for broader liberation of Puerto Rican peoples on and off the archipelago (Torres and Velázquez 1998).

Demands for Black and Puerto Rican studies emerged alongside Boricua calls for change. Established first at City University of New York campuses in 1969, these programs spread throughout New York and to other universities in the Northeast (Cabán 2009). Early faculty sought to document the conditions of the community, using traditional social science tools to combat widespread “culture of poverty” narratives that had long been used to brand the group. Scholars also quickly developed a transnational lens that went beyond simply assessing the conditions of Puerto Rican enclaves and began detailing how issues of citizenship, colonial status, and racial hierarchies produce inequalities across spaces (Bonilla and Campos 1982; Cabán 2022; Padilla 1987; Márquez 2009; Rodríguez 1979).

Cuban studies and Dominican studies were established in subsequent decades. Distinct waves of Cuban immigration as well as Cuba’s turbulent relationship with the United States have not yet led to significant activist movements that center decolonial and racial justice language within this population. Instead, Cuban studies has been spurred by academics eager to form a discipline that supports scholarship on Cuba’s political history and ongoing social, political, and economic conditions, along with some emphasis on Cuban immigrant experiences in the United States (Domínguez 1995). While the first Cuban Research Institute was established at Florida International University in 1991, and other Florida colleges maintain research emphases on Cuba within their Latin American studies programs, there are no stand-alone Cuban studies departments and no long-standing efforts to build a broader Latino studies program/department alongside Cuban studies within the state.

The first Dominican Studies Institute was founded at City College of New York in 1992 as a response to institutional pressures (Cabán 2003). Intellectually, the field initially concentrated on Dominican American politics, the development of Dominican American institutions, religion, and the economic realities of transnational life (Mize 2019). More recently, Dominican scholars have been studying the racialization of Dominicans, anti-Blackness, and the intricacies of Dominican racial identity. In centering these foci, Dominican studies offers much for ongoing scholarship on racialization in Latino studies more broadly. But again, to date there are no known stand-alone Dominican studies departments with dedicated core faculty.

Central American studies followed thereafter. Developed as new waves of refugees established communities in the United States, Central American studies sought to help describe the transnational factors—rooted in US-Latin American relationships—that undergirded the conditions of migration and settlement. Focusing on the broad-scale effects of American imperialism, including covert US support for right-wing political movements in the region, Central American studies focused on how the long reaches of international politics and economic exploitation create the subordination, terror, and endemic poverty that spur migration. The first Central American studies department was founded at California State University Northridge in 2015, and in 2020, UCLA revised their department’s name to the Cesar E. Chavez Department of Chicana/o and Central American Studies (Davis 2016; UCLA Newsroom 2020).

While other Latino national-origin groups continue to grow in population size (i.e., Venezuelan Americans, Colombian Americans, and other South Americans), there are no wide-scale movements or concerted efforts to establish corollary stand-alone programs dedicated to their settlement and US-based experiences. Instead, when new initiatives emerge, they tend to be pan-ethnic Latino studies programs, likely shaped by the varied national-origin makeup and research specializations of preexisting faculty who are brought together in support of a new program. Established programs too have transformed to reflect the growth of pan-ethnicity. Some, though not all, Chicano studies programs in California, for example, have become Chicano/Latino studies (i.e., Loyola Marymount University 2022) and, subsequently, Chicanx and Latinx studies (i.e., UC Berkeley 2022). Similarly, Puerto Rican studies programs would switch to being called Latino and Caribbean studies (Rutgers University 2022) or Latin American, Latino, and Puerto Rican studies (Lehman College, CUNY 2022). Such transformations reflect the national-origin diversity of faculty, as well as academic, sociopolitical, and ethnoracial issues of concern to broad swaths of Latinxs across national origin distinctions.

Though scholars have written about the emergence of these fields of study (Acuña 2011; Mize 2019; Domínguez 1995), their consolidation into broader Latino studies programs (Aparicio 1999; Flores 1997; Rodríguez 2010), and their frequent tenuous positionalities in higher education before (Cabán 2003; Davila 2008), there remains a lack of systematic data on Latino studies programs across the nation’s colleges and universities. Latino studies scholars have thus been left to make arguments about the status of the field at their home institutions and in academic writing without clear answers to some fundamental questions, such as these: How many Latino studies programs are there? Where are they located? How do they describe themselves? On average, how many faculty are appointed to these programs? And, to what degree has Latino studies grown across the country since inception? In the analyses that follow, we take up these questions with the hope that their answers provide foundations for understanding the status of the field.

Data and methods

We draw our data from the NCES College Navigator website. The NCES is the largest and most comprehensive college data system, which includes information on the population of all US higher education institutions that receive some form of federal support, including the distribution of federal student loans. All colleges and universities that distribute federal loans are required to submit institutional data to the NCES annually. The College Navigator tool draws from these data to provide prospective students with an opportunity to search all higher education institutions that offer particular majors. Our initial search tallied forty-seven programs at four-year public and private nonprofit colleges that offer a Latino studies major (including any Puerto Rican studies and Mexican American/Chicano studies stand-alone programs). Specifically, our unit of analysis was any entity, regardless of whether it was labeled a program or a department, that provided students with a four-year degree in Latino studies (or any of its ethnonational derivatives, e.g., Chicano studies).

Recognizing that some Latino studies programs are housed in broader ethnic studies and Latin American studies programs, we broadened our search parameters to consider all colleges and universities that offer these majors, and we searched each institution’s website to glean whether they too offered a Latino studies major. For example, the University of Connecticut offers a Latino and Latin American studies major that was included as a Latin American studies program in NCES College Navigator tool but excluded as a Latino studies program. After web searches of all ethnic studies and Latin American studies programs, we found an additional forty-two Latina/o/x studies programs that were not listed as such by College Navigator, totaling eighty-nine across the country.Footnote 3

We note here that our data collection procedures permit a fuller understanding of the population of Latinx studies programs that currently offer BA programs. Still, we are unable to account for programs that were founded but closed prior to our search. Indeed, it may have been that some programs were founded in the 1990s, for example, but closed operations in the 2010s. These entities are not reflected in our dataset. Moreover, available data do not permit exploration of colleges/universities that offer only Latino studies minors, certificates, or research institutes. These data are not systematically collected by NCES and do not offer a four-year Latino studies degree. Therefore, our analyses do not explore the entire globe of Latinx studies curricular offerings, but rather, focus on those programs that generally receive the most institutional commitment in terms of faculty lines and degree-granting resources.

After finalizing the list of all Latino studies programs, we searched program websites for additional data. We collected information on the number of core program faculty, analyzed programmatic descriptions and mission statements, and collected information on the year or decade each program was founded. The number of core faculty associated with a program was collected from faculty directories posted on departmental web pages and curriculum vitae checks when necessary to differentiate affiliate faculty from core, and permanent faculty from adjunct professors. In a few instances, it was challenging to differentiate faculty dedicated primarily to institutions’ Latino studies programs when housed in combined Latin American studies (LAS) or Spanish-language departments. This was more common among newly developed programs than among older established ones. In these cases, it appeared that Latino studies was added to a longer-standing LAS or Spanish program and that the majority of faculty appeared to be area studies or language specialists. To address the issue, we isolated these programs and conducted more exhaustive web searches, by examining curricular offerings, teaching histories, and conducting CV checks. In the very few cases that remained unclear, we erred on the side of overcounting Latino studies faculty. Importantly, we also included all jointly appointed faculty in our core faculty counts.

Additionally, program founding dates were not publicly listed for all programs. Here, we relied on additional press releases, newsletters, and journal articles, and reached out directly to program faculty via email for this information. In a few instances, program faculty were unaware of the precise date their program was founded, and they could not secure this information from programmatic records. However, they were able to communicate with confidence the decade in which their programs began. Given our more general interest in programmatic growth over a fifty-plus year timespan, we make use of the decade in which programs were founded rather than year-by-year distinctions. A list of all four-year colleges to currently offer a Latino studies BA program, along with their decade founded, is available in the Appendix.

Finally, we reviewed all available program descriptions and mission statements for the entire population of Latino studies programs (n = 89). Here, we had a keen interest in how programs described themselves and the intellectual project of their unit. In the initial stages of analysis, all three authors collaboratively reviewed a sample of websites to identify themes. Almost immediately, we discerned that some programs expressed intellectual and normative commitments to decolonial and racial-justice-oriented goals, whereas others described their programs as opportunities for students to learn about the cultural diversity and histories of Latin American peoples and their descendants in the United States. Still others had very limited, or sparse, descriptions of their programmatic goals or aims. After these three initial themes emerged (political, cultural, sparse description), one member of the research team coded all remaining programs while paying special attention to any potential alternative patterns. Upon completion, no additional thematic variation was observed. All programs fit neatly into the previously identified categorical themes save for a small number (less than 10%) for which there was some ambiguity. The full research team collaboratively reviewed all remaining cases until consensus was reached. We describe these findings in the section below.

Latino studies developments over time

Drawing from the US Department of Education’s NCES and analyses of program websites and supplementary materials, one of the most striking findings, observable in Fig. 1, is that only eighty-nine of the nation’s 2,637 four-year higher education institutions currently offer a Latino studies major. Alongside the rapid growth of Latinx student enrollments and numbers of Hispanic-serving institutions in this new millennium, there has been a troubling paucity and stagnation of Latino studies as a field of study.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Total number of four-year Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to offer Latinx studies programs

Additionally, of the limited number of existing programs, we found that a large share emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. As seen in Fig. 2, twenty-three programs were founded in the late 1960s, and sixteen new programs emerged throughout the following decade. Only three programs were founded in the 1980s, followed by twelve to fourteen new programs in the decades that followed. So far, since 2020, only six new Latino studies programs have been founded. In Figs. 3 and 4, we detail considerable regional variation and changes by public or private status. In the 1960s and 1970s, Latino studies and, more accurately, its Chicano studies/Puerto Rican studies predecessors were established across a number of mostly public colleges and universities in the West (e.g., California State Universities and University of California campuses) and Northeast (e.g., CUNY schools in New York). While programmatic growth has since slowed, we see continued incremental growth across some colleges in the Northeast and Southwest, the establishment of multiple programs in the Midwest, and a small number of programs initiated across the South. Figure 4 illustrates noteworthy patterns by public/private status. In the founding decades of the 1960s and 1970s, we see that most programs initiated were at public colleges and universities (thirty out of thirty-nine). Since then, institutional support for Latinx studies at public universities has declined considerably (six new programs at public universities since 2010), while private support has remained consistently low, at approximately eight new programs founded per decade.

Fig. 2
figure 2

Number of Latinx studies programs founded by decade

Fig. 3
figure 3

Number of Latinx studies programs founded per decade by region

Fig. 4
figure 4

Number of Latinx studies programs founded per decade by public/private status

In the aggregate, the rate of growth has been steady at approximately twelve to fourteen programs initiated per decade since the 1990s. However, the growth rate pales in comparison to the Latinx transformations in higher education over the same period. As seen in the bar charts of Fig. 5, Latinxs made up only 6% of all college students across all higher education in the early 1990s. At that time, approximately 3% of all colleges and universities were recognized as Hispanic-serving institutions for enrolling a disproportionately larger share of Latinx students, and since then, there has been dramatic growth. Latinxs now make up over 20% of all college students, and there are 559 Hispanic-serving institutions in the United States, making up approximately 15% of all colleges and universities.

Fig. 5
figure 5

Latinx trends in higher education

We note that increased enrollment and HSI expansion may be explained by the growth of the Latinx population across the US, especially among youth, and these data points should not be viewed as indications that higher education has effectively addressed or redressed the systemic inequality that continues to marginalize and limit Latinx thriving. Indeed, many colleges and universities meet the HSI threshold of 25% Latinx enrollments by underserving their local populations wherein Latinxs make up a much larger share of the local community. Additionally, research illustrates that HSIs often fail to center their Latinx students and faculty with federal minority-serving institution funds (Vargas and Villa-Palomino 2019; Vargas et al. 2020). Further, Latinxs continue to have the lowest level of four-year degree attainment of all ethnoracial groups (National Center for Education Statistics 2017).

Nonetheless, population growth has ensured that higher education has become increasingly Latinx. More Latinxs attend college today than at any other time in the nation’s history. We expect this trend to continue for decades. And yet, as the dotted black line running across Fig. 5 illustrates, the share of colleges and universities with a Latino studies major has remained stagnant since the 1990s. Less than 4% of the nation’s four-year colleges offer a Latino studies program, and this percentage has barely shifted in recent decades. Fifty years ago, there were well-organized and effective efforts to found ethnic studies as a program of instruction. Yet today we find that institutional efforts to support Latino studies’ expansion are meager at best. As a result, Latinx college students largely lack the curricular offerings that reflect on their histories and contemporary experiences and operate with an ethos of transformative change for Latinx peoples.

In addition to documenting the growth and founding of Latino studies programs, we sought to explore variation among existent programs. Specifically, we expected that activism of the 1960s and 1970s may have ushered in not only the emergence of Latino studies and ethnic studies, but also established programs that are supported by a larger number of core faculty, and that they prioritize issues of inequality and justice as a programmatic mission.

Figure 6 illustrates a clear pattern in line with our first expectation: Latino studies programs founded in the 1960s and 1970s have far more core faculty than those founded more recently. Programs founded in the 1960s have an average of eight core faculty, whereas those founded since 2000 have only two or three. Moreover, we see in Fig. 7 that programs founded in the 1960s and 1970s are more likely to describe themselves today as facilitating social-justice-oriented goals aimed at detailing and undermining systemic inequalities that Latinxs face. Such political expressions plummeted among programs that emerged since the 1980s. The latter programs typically portray themselves as majors wherein students can learn about the culture and history of Latin America and Latinxs in US society, or they have very sparse descriptions of their programmatic mission or goals. With more limited data, Davila (2008) once warned of the “mainstreaming” of Latino studies in neoliberal educational environments that could divorce Latino studies and ethnic studies from their original liberatory ethos in favor of facilitating “multicultural competency.” Our findings here support that assertation and suggest a renewed heeding of that call (Fig. 8).

Fig. 6
figure 6

Mean number of Core Latinx Studies Faculty by founding decade (2022 totals)

Fig. 7
figure 7

Program description by founding decade

Fig. 8
figure 8

Percent of four-year HEIs with dedicated programs

Supplementing our analysis of Latino studies BA programs, we further sought to tally the number of Latino studies PhD programs. We repeated our data collection procedures, collecting first all data for dedicated Latino studies PhD programs from NCES' College Navigator Tool, and then searching all additional ethnic and American studies PhD programs for those that have emphases in Latinx studies. Here the numbers are smaller. Across all colleges and universities in the United States, ten currently offer PhD programs in Latino studies. An additional fourteen programs offer PhD programs in combined ethnic and American studies that make some mention of Latino studies, and eleven more ethnic and American studies PhD programs exist that make no mention of Latino studies in their program descriptions.Footnote 4

Finally, we note, in Fig. 9, that Latino studies (89 programs) does not stand alone in its limited representation. Our analysis of NCES data illustrates that African American studies (approximately 250 programs), Asian American studies (~ 50 programs), Indigenous studies (~ 75 programs), and even aggregated ethnic studies (~ 140 programs) are all substantially underrepresented across US higher education.

Fig. 9
figure 9

Number of PhD Programs

Growth and stagnation in Latino studies: steps ahead

The primary aim of this research is both straightforward and important: to track the programmatic growth of Latino studies from inception to present day across all colleges and universities in the United States. In doing so, we reveal the wide gap between Latinx student population growth and the establishment of new programs. Overall, our findings show that Latino studies growth is minimal, stagnant, and resource-constrained. Not even the establishment and rise of Hispanic-serving institutions have been enough to spur sufficient growth.

In The Making of Chicana/o Studies, Acuña writes, “The push for Chicano Studies began in the fall of 1968 at a time when most four-year colleges only had a couple dozen Mexican American students” (Acuña 2011, p. 58). Today, 3.2 million Latinxs attend postsecondary institutions (HACU 2022). And 97% of all four-year colleges and universities are not offering students a program that, more than any other, was established for the purposes of detailing and improving Latinx lives. Notably, substantial gaps remain in rates of degree attainment among Latinxs and other ethnoracial groups, and ethnic studies/Latino studies is known to increase student retention, academic attachment, and facilitate positive educational outcomes (Marrun 2018; Sleeter and Zavala 2020; Sueyoshi and Sujitparapitaya 2020). So, why is there not a concerted effort to invest in Latino studies? Our research suggests that a renewed call for the establishment and strengthening of a critical and liberatory Latino studies, especially across the 2500-plus public and private four-year colleges that currently do not offer such programming, is in order.

Moreover, the data patterns we reveal leave at least three important implications for thinking about Latinos in the United States, and about the broader issue of ethnic and racial relations. First, the lack of growth works to invisibilize Latinxs in larger conversations about racial inequality and racial justice in the United States. Inasmuch as Latino studies, and ethnic studies more generally, has helped bring to light important patterns of social inequality, the lack of Latino studies specifically has hampered national conversations about Latinx racialization. This has been done, we argue, by diminishing the spaces in which vibrant intellectual discussion, discovery, and debate about Latinos is available. The lack of resources and attention to Latino studies, even at HSIs, effectively leads to fewer Latino studies intellectuals, diminished Latino public research agendas, and stagnant public discourse on the conditions of Latino communities. Moreover, that newer programs are likely to be significantly resource-constrained, with far fewer faculty across both public and private universities, suggests important limitations for the future.

Second, the lack of Latino studies and its tenuous growth has implications for student well-being. Inasmuch as research suggests that ethnic studies can improve student performance and knowledge, the lack of Latino studies means that fewer students will come to know about the challenges, contributions, and dynamics of one of the foundational and fastest-growing communities in the United States. Moreover, given that students of color, especially, benefit from learning about their community’s history, the lack of Latino studies means one further hurdle in Latinx student well-being. This can, in turn, extend to challenges with the academic student pipeline, especially given limited Latino studies graduate program offerings.

Third, ignoring Latino studies affects the national conversation on US race relations more generally. Programs that promote the understanding of US Latinx history, and US Latinx livelihoods more broadly, help all groups understand the nation in a manner that takes issues of citizenship, colonialism, racism, and borders seriously. In other words, Latino studies programs, and Latino studies public discourse, help all to see that Latinx history is US history, that Latinx communities are US communities, and that Latinx art, poetry, and media are worthy, important, expressions of US life. Latino studies thus centers the idea that Latinx communities are not made up of alien foreigners but rather are part and parcel of the building and makeup of the nation, foundational to its promises and its pitfalls. It also shines a light on how Latinxs are inserted into the racial hierarchy and subject to its injustices and inequalities. In sum, Latino studies fights against the inherent invisibilization of Latinx communities and reminds us that Latinxs are a central, rather than marginal or niche, aspect of our racial landscape.

We also see much opportunity for further research. Importantly, future scholarship might focus on the issue of resources and resource constraints, or student activism patterns, to understand why new programs emerge where and when they do. This line of work could further reveal the necessary and sufficient factors for Latino studies implementation and growth. Other work might hone in on the issue of representation. Given that newer programs are less likely to center issues of social and racial justice in their programmatic descriptions, future work might investigate whether local political contexts, neoliberal educational resource patterns, or campus climate might be correlated with the character and presentation of new programs. Additionally, future work might examine programmatic closure and survival. The data we analyzed are contemporary, based on the current programs that exist. Yet, some programs may have been founded and later dismantled, leading them to “disappear” from our data set. What factors might account for program dismantlement or closure? Accordingly, what might account for long-term growth and survival? These open questions could be investigated through further quantitative work, or they could also be answered through qualitative and archival investigations. The options and directions for future research abound and could shed important light on the future and direction of Latino studies. We hope that the data and findings reported in this study help to facilitate future investigations.

Finally, we note again that Latino studies does not stand alone in its limited representation. Like Latino studies (3%), dedicated African American/Black studies (9%), Asian American studies (2%), Native American studies (3%), and even broader ethnic studies programs (5%) are also glaringly absent in the vast majority of today’s colleges and universities. We find promise in ethnoracial coalitional advocacy in support of programmatic growth across these fields and, like others (Davila 2008), caution against the inclination for colleges/universities to establish umbrella multicultural programs in an effort to appease each ethnoracial groups’ calls while simultaneously allocating minimal resources to any single field and a very limited number of dedicated faculty. Like other racial and ethnic studies disciplines, Latino studies is at its most effective when it exists as a core centralized place for community building and support. Yet such initiatives need to be resourced with adequate faculty allocations and organizational agency, and not comprise hires made for alternative purposes. So, we exclaim—For interdisciplinary understanding of Latinx livelihoods, and multifaceted theoretical and methodological interventions that come from an engaged community with shared goals of improving conditions for ethnoracially marginalized groups, it is past time for a renewed support for Latino studies.