Equity & Diversity

Pew Foundation Study Finds Higher Ed. Gap for Latinos

By Sean Cavanagh — September 18, 2002 4 min read
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Latino high school graduates are just as likely to be enrolled in college as students from other ethnic groups, including non-Hispanic whites, but they lag behind their peers in pursuing four-year degrees, a study released this month has found.

Read the report, “Latinos in Higher Education: Many Enroll, Too Few Graduate,” from the Pew Hispanic Foundation. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The report by the Pew Hispanic Foundation, “Latinos in Higher Education: Many Enroll, Too Few Graduate,” suggests that many Hispanic students cope with significant financial burdens and family obligations while in college, which makes the life of the full-time undergraduate a difficult one.

Latinos are instead more likely to seek out two-year colleges, or go to school part time, according to the author of the report, which relied on an analysis of U.S. Census data.

“There is the perception that community colleges are more affordable, and that they have more vocational offerings,” Richard Fry, a senior research associate for the foundation, a Washington research organization that focuses on Hispanic issues, said in explaining the results. Latino students and families, he said, “may not have an appreciation that part- time studies are not as conducive to completing college.”

Among the overall adult U.S. population, regardless of age, 10 percent of Latino high school graduates are currently in some form of college, the report says. That is a higher percentage than for whites, at 6.7 percent, and any other ethnic or racial group except Asians and Pacific Islanders, at 11.3 percent, the study found.

But a look at enrollment at four-year colleges and universities—and at a slice of the population confined to the typical college years—yields a different picture. Roughly 53 percent of Latinos between the ages of 18 and 24 were enrolled, compared with 68 percent of whites and 66 percent of blacks, the study shows.

Enrollment for Latinos also varies greatly by family history. About 42 percent of Latino 18- to 24-year-olds who were born in the United States are attending some form of higher education, including community colleges, compared with 46 percent of whites. But only 26 percent of first- generation Latinos in that age group were in college, the data cited in the report show.

A Juggling Act

Mr. Fry said he was heartened by the performance of second-generation Hispanics.

“It’s surprising how small that gap [between Latino and white students] is,” he said. “It’s very encouraging.”

Family immigration patterns traditionally play a crucial part in Latinos’ academic success, Mr. Fry noted. National high school dropout rates for 16- to 24-year-old Hispanic students born outside the United States topped 44 percent, according to a 2000 report by the U.S. Department of Education. But that rate fell to about 16 percent for second-generation Hispanics.

Those estimates relied on a “status” dropout rate, which studies all individuals within an age group who are not currently enrolled in high school, and have not graduated or received an equivalency diploma.

Latinos were also much more likely than college-age students from other backgrounds to choose two-year and part-time college routes, the Pew study found. Roughly 40 percent of Latinos between the ages of 18 and 24 attend two-year institutions, compared with 25 percent of both whites and blacks from that age group. And only 75 percent of Latino students of that age range were enrolled in college full time, compared with 85 percent of whites.

By contrast, a slightly higher percentage of Latino high school graduates over the age of 24 were enrolled in college, compared with the white population.

No Surprise

The findings do not surprise Gabriela D. Lewis, the director of policy and legislation for the League of United Latin American Citizens, a national political and economic advocacy organization in Washington.

“Many Latinos start [school] when they’re older,” Ms. Lewis said. “They go down the community college pathway. A lot of them go to night school, and they’re working while they’re in school.”

A part-time college instructor, Ms. Lewis remembered how her students juggled work, family, and academic obligations when she was teaching at a community college in San Diego in the 1990s. Leading a class with an overwhelmingly Latino population, the instructor sometimes modified her homework assignments. And she let students bring their children to class, to accommodate lives more complicated than those of more typical, 18-year-old freshmen.

“You could tell the difference in the amount of time they had to devote to their homework,” she recalled of her Latino students. “They were working two jobs. ... A little bit of flexibility could go a long way.”

School systems and colleges could encourage Latinos to seek four-year degrees by counseling parents about the benefits of going to school full time, Ms. Lewis said.

That approach was echoed by Felix Galaviz, the executive director of the Puente Project, an Oakland, Calif., organization devoted to enhancing the academic preparation for college of minority and underrepresented students. Puente encourages high schools and colleges to form partnerships with business and community organizations and to seek out mentors, all of whom can help students by touting the benefits of college degrees and telling them about future careers.

“They can learn from people about real jobs and real experiences, how they can become successful personally and professionally,” Mr. Galaviz said. High schools that relied solely on principals, counselors, and other staff members to explain the benefits of either a two- or four-year education, he said, were not serving their students as well as they might.

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