President Barack Obama wants the United States to have a higher proportion of college graduates than any other country in the world by 2020. According to the OECD’s latest “Education at a Glance” report, 44% of U.S. adults have attained some type of post-secondary education, but the country will have to increase that proportion to 60% by the end of the decade to reach Obama’s goal.
Demographic trends are clear. Already, 25% of public school students in pre-K through 12th grade are Latino, and they make up the fastest-growing group among children four and under.
Reaching Obama’s goal will be hard to do — and all but impossible to maintain — without the academic success of Latinos.
Alicia Diaz is executive director of legislative affairs at the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, or HACU. She says there is a growing number of institutions that can be defined as “Hispanic-serving institutions” for having a student population that is at least 25% Latino. And, the growth itself is gaining speed.
In recent years it has been common for 15 to 17 new colleges and universities to reach the 25% mark each year. Last year, there were 39.
“There are many places that are minority-majority and that’s not going backwards,” Diaz said at a recent conference for Spanish-speaking journalists.
Nearly half of Hispanic-serving institutions, or HSIs, are two-year colleges. For the federal designation, a school must be nonprofit, but public and private institutions are eligible to compete for special funds. Schools across the country are using this money to increase their institutional capacity and develop new programs of study to expand educational opportunities for Latinos and other underrepresented groups.
At Valencia College, a multi-campus school offering predominantly two-year programs in Florida, almost 33% of students are Latino. Kathleen Plinske is the president of the Osceola and Lake Nona campuses. She said one strategy for recruiting students, including Latinos, is helping them picture themselves on a college campus sooner. Valencia offers tours to high school students, sends out postcards to every high school graduate in the community college district letting them know they are eligible to enroll, and offers financial aid sessions to provide more information about the cost of college.
Plinske worries the political talk about massive student debt gives people the impression that students have to take out large loans to get a degree. Fewer than 20% of Valencia students, however, have loans — and most of those who do take out less than $5,000. Community colleges, she said, should be offered as a more affordable, yet still high-quality, alternative.
“The tuition cost of Valencia College is less than the cost of meal plans at some other schools,” Plinske said.
Christian Brothers University in Tennessee announced last summer a commitment of $12 million over seven years to support Latino student success programs. Much of the money is expected to help undocumented students pay for their education.
While the nation’s colleges and universities are being caught up in student protests about diversity and inclusion, the conversation is being driven largely by black students, but higher education administrators should not forget the large and growing population of students of color with Latino heritage. Programs and supports that recognize their needs are important, too.
The amount of money available to HSIs is relatively small in the scope of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget. And with more schools becoming eligible to compete for the funds every year, the actual possibility of getting the money is shrinking.
“This year, the government didn’t make cuts,” Diaz said. “But if there are more schools and more students and the same amount of funds, that means a cut.”
In the absence of federal funding, colleges and universities may be forced to find the money on their own. And given this country’s future, it would be a smart pre-emptive move.
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