Federal Leadership Vacuum Has Latino Colleges Relying on State, Institutional Initiatives
To look at the national statistics on educational attainment for Latino students is to see a dismal and disturbing picture.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, Hispanics have educational attainment levels that are far lower than those of other groups. In 2013, 22 percent of Hispanic adults had earned an associate degree or higher, compared to 46 percent of Whites, 60 percent of Asians and 31 percent of African Americans.
- FAST FACTS 1: Latinos in Community Colleges
- FAST FACTS 2: Hispanic Population and the Condition of Latinos in Education
- FAST FACTS 3: Latinos in California
- FAST FACTS 4: Latinos in Higher Eduction
But the numbers can be misleading. At best, the national statistics provide an incomplete portrait of Hispanic academic achievement. Graduation rates overlook non-traditional students and are ill-suited to tracking Hispanic students and the institutions that serve them. Only about one-third of students entering public community colleges — the type of institution most likely to enroll Hispanic students — are counted in the federal graduation rate.
Better that policymakers look to the states and individual institutions to get aclearer picture of how Hispanic students are faring and what’s working to improve outcomes.
For example, on the southern tip of Texas, near the U.S.-Mexican border, South Texas College by some metrics is improving academic outcomes for its overwhelmingly Latino enrollment.
The percentage of students requiring remediation has dropped from 70 percent in the college’s first year (it was founded in 1993) to just 13 percent today. Its dual enrollment program has grown to 13,000 students a year, allowing students to accumulate college credit and creating a college-going culture in a region where before there was none. The Early College High School program was cited as America’s top program for increasing achievement for Latino students in the associate degree category by Excelencia in Education.
The college has also added student success centers, provided more advising and tutoring opportunities and employed technological tools like degree planning software to help students stay on track to completion. It’s retention rate, which slumped during the Great Recession, is ticking back up.
In California, meanwhile, Cerritos College, located in suburban Los Angeles, is seeing its own positive results. Through a variety of initiatives, the number of Hispanic students who accumulated at least 30 credits — considered an important benchmark toward completion — increased by 4.5 percent in 2013. The overall success rate of Hispanic students increased by 10 percentage points between 2007 and 2013.
College officials credit, in part, their home-grown iFALCON program, an acronym that stands for focus, advance, link up, comprehend, organize and new ideas. Developed by college faculty, it teaches students study skills, time management and working with peers. The college also created a student success center in 2011, providing a space where students can get one-on-one tutoring, take part in group workshops and use computer-based learning tools. The college estimates that 10,000 students use the center each semester.
These examples, cited in “Beyond Access,” a report issued in June by New America, a Washington public policy institute, underscore a reality for advocates striving to improve academic outcomes for the nation’s growing number of Latino students: innovation and progress is likely to come from institutions and states rather than from the federal government.
“In the absence of leadership, some states have really taken charge in trying to improve outcomes,” said Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education for the Center for American Progress. Miller wrote the “Beyond Access” report when he was the higher education research director for New America.
“But the problem is at the state level, the data we are getting really varies. It’s hard to compare because the states use different cohorts and metrics. We use one broad term to describe these students, but they come from many different backgrounds.”
Miller contends that the federal Education Department is ill-equipped to develop and promote policies that will improve college outcomes for Latino college students.
Even as the number of Hispanics attending college has exploded — the U.S. Education Department reports that the number of Hispanic undergraduates increased by 638,000 between 2008 and 2105 — policymakers at the federal level don’t have a clear picture on how they are faring.
“While the Education Department reports outcomes like graduation and retention rates, only the former is disaggregated by race,” Miller wrote. “And the reported graduation rate has limited utility because it only measures students who follow the traditional attendance pattern of starting college full time in the fall and without ever having enrolled anywhere else.”
States, by contrast, can shed the limitations of the federal metrics. They can include transfer students and part-timers. They can look at retention rates and grades.
The difference is particularly important for community colleges. Fully two-thirds of Hispanic students enrolled in college are attending community colleges; in 2013, two-year colleges enrolled 1.5 million students compared to 806,000 at public fouryear schools. But only a fraction — perhaps a third — of entering students at public community colleges are captured by the federal measure. Latino students tend to swirl in an out of college rather than following a direct point-to-point path.
“It’s troubling to see that the federal government is not making an effort to find out what’s going on,” Miller said. “It really feels like we are flying blind.”
No one is arguing that Latino students are thriving. The available data shows a troubling dichotomy when it comes to the college-going Latino population. While more Latinos than ever before are graduating from high school and heading to college, their college graduation rate lags far behind other demographic groups.
Deborah A. Santiago, chief operating officer and vice president for policy at Excelencia in Education, said better high school graduation rates are a positive development. But college completion rates need to improve, she said.
“The state of Latino higher education is not yet where it needs to be,” she wrote in an email. “Our analysis shows, less than 1 in 4 (about 22 percent) of Latino adults in the U.S. have earned an associate degree or higher, compared to over 35 percent of all adults in the U.S. Policymakers need to address the challenge head-on, she said.
“The state of Latinos in higher education requires intentionality and diligence to ensure the opportunity we have to improve Latino’s educational attainment is targeted, effective, and measureable in their success. Too often, broad strategies that are not intentional in targeting Latinos miss the opportunity to serve the Latino community well.”
Santiago’s group has recognized many successful initiatives with evidence of effectiveness in increasing Latinos’ college access, persistence, success and completion and shared them with the higher education community.
States might benefit similar sharing initiatives, said Stella M. Flores, associate professor of higher education and director of access and equity at New York University.
Flores said how Latino college students fare varies widely from state to state. States that have seen a recent influx of Latino residents — such as North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia — could learn something from those with long histories of dealing with Latino populations, like Texas, Florida or California.
“That’s no surprise because some of these states have lived with these populations for a long time,” Flores said. “The southern states are different from Texas or California.”
Policymakers could take several steps boost the chances that Hispanic students will succeed. They could direct more resources to Hispanic Serving Institutions; over two-thirds of Latino students at community colleges are enrolled in HSIs, which, in turn, account for 18 percent of all community colleges. They could make it easier to get financial aid.
“With Latino families, it’s about information and affordability,” Flores said. “Navigating the financial aid system in English is exceedingly difficult. It’s more difficult for Latinos. Many students don’t even apply for financial aid.”
Miller said policymakers need to build on their success.
“The increase in the number of Latinos who are going to college is the most positive story in higher education in years,” he said. “But if we don’t make sure they get through, it’s a squandered opportunity.”