Latinos head to college at a record rate, now on par with white students

The push to keep Latino students on track for college seems to be paying off. The college enrollment rate for Hispanics is up 20 percent since 2000, narrowing the 'education gap.'

Latino high school graduates are enrolling in college at an all-time high and, for the first time, at a rate comparable to that of their white peers.

A record 69 percent of Latino students enrolled in college after their 2012 high school graduation, according to a new report by the Pew Hispanic Center. Overall, 66 percent of all 2012 high school graduates immediately enrolled in college, but Latinos did so at higher rates than whites (67 percent) and blacks (63 percent), according to preliminary data.

Latinos are the fastest-growing minority population in the US, but the increased rate of Latino students enrolling in college is more than just a demographic trend, says Pew senior research associate Richard Fry. It’s a sign that the education gap is narrowing,

In the past several years, Mr. Fry says, there has been a big push from the Latino community, higher education organizations, and scholarship foundations to keep Latino youths in high school and to help them through the process of getting into college.

“It seems to be paying off,” he says.

Since 2000, the rate of Latinos immediately entering college after high school has jumped 20 percent, while the rate of Latino high school dropouts has reached a record low: 14 percent of Latinos dropped out in 2011 compared with 28 percent in 2000, the report said.

For Elizabeth Garcia, who just finished her first year at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., going to college had been her dream since elementary school.

Raised in Palmetto, Fla., Ms. Garcia says she wants to achieve much more than what her neighborhood expects of Latino youths: high rates of violence, teen pregnancy, and high school dropouts. Her fifth-grade teacher told her she should consider becoming a plumber, because no college would ever accept her.

She realized how hard she would have to work to get into college, and she found support in high school teachers and her parents, who immigrated to the US from Guatemala and Mexico before she was born.

“From a young age, my parents would give us money if we got straight As,” Garcia says. But when Garcia got to high school, her parents could no longer afford to reward her good grades. By then, she says, “the will and determination to do well had already been instilled in me.”

Garcia’s college-going experience – attending a four-year private university full time, on a full-ride scholarship – isn’t the typical Latino college experience.

Latinos still trail whites on several higher education measures, the Pew report said:

  • Latinos are less likely than whites to enroll in four-year colleges (56 percent compared with 72 percent of recent high school graduates).
  • They are less likely than whites to attend a selective college (60 percent compared with 85 percent of sophomores who enrolled in a four-year college).
  • Latinos are less likely than whites to enroll in college full time (78 percent compared with 85 percent among college students 18 to 24 years old).
  • They are less likely than whites to complete a bachelor’s degree (11 percent compared with 22 percent of 22- to 24-year-olds who had attained a bachelor’s degree).

“College-going is not a small chore in America,” Fry says. Students and their families must navigate a complicated process and start to make plans during high school about what to do after graduation – they have to decide where they want to go, take the right courses, and apply for financial aid. For immigrant families, in which many of the parents have not attended college, knowing the process of how to apply to college can be an obstacle, he adds.

With the lackluster economy hitting Latino youths harder than white youths, Latino families are increasingly recognizing the importance of staying in school, the Pew report said.

“We see changing parental attitudes shifting toward the importance of work versus the importance of schooling for their teenagers,” Fry says, referring to previous Pew research. In 2009, 84 percent of Latinos ages 16 and older said a college degree is necessary to get ahead in life, compared with 74 percent of all Americans.

“In all Hispanic families there is a passion and determination to do better for oneself,” Garcia says. “We don’t have to be migrant workers, tomato pickers, or construction workers. Not that there is anything wrong with those jobs, but there is more we can do for the community and for the world.”

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