What Population Growth Means for Higher Education

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(Courtesy of The American)

On Friday, the College Board published an important report on the challenge of improving the college completion rates of Hispanic students. The report marshals a ton of useful data on this question, but it’s the projections of the growth in Latino postsecondary enrollment that are the most important. Latinos were responsible for almost 40 percent of the growth in the population under the age of 16 over the last decade; they now make up the largest minority group in America’s elementary and secondary schools. Projections suggest that the number of Latinos enrolled in postsecondary institutions will grow from 2.3 million in 2008 to 3.3 million in 2019. Meanwhile, the College Board reports that only 19.2 percent of Hispanics aged 25 to 34 have attained an associate degree or higher, compared to 48.7 percent of whites.

The College Board report comes on the heels of new research from the Pew Hispanic Center which showed that the enrollment of Hispanic students aged 18-24 grew by a whopping 349,000 between 2009 and 2010 (a 24 percent increase in just a single year). In contrast, African-American enrollment growth was about one quarter of that (88,000) and white enrollment experienced a decline of 320,000 students during this period.

As my colleagues and I warned in Rising to the Challenge last year, these projections suggest that Latino student success will have an increasingly large impact on the nation’s ability to make progress on President Obama’s higher education goals and on its long-term economic competitiveness. Building a highly skilled workforce will require serious attention to the challenges and obstacles that Hispanic students encounter. What to do?

The College Board offers an ambitious slate of suggested reforms that target the entire educational pipeline, from quality early childhood instruction to improved high school counseling to targeted efforts to improve student retention and completion. In all, the report makes ten recommendations, five of which deal explicitly with the postsecondary side of the equation. Suggestions like “keep college affordable” and “simplify the admissions and financial aid processes” are certainly advisable.

Where the report falls short, however, is in making recommendations about how to change policies such that:

1. Institutions of higher education have incentive to not only enroll Hispanic students, but to ensure that they graduate and;

2. Hispanic students have a better sense of which colleges are likely to serve their interests most effectively.

In particular, despite our recommendations, there has been no effort to augment the federal definition of what constitutes a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) to reflect student success as well as enrollment. Currently, the definition hinges only on the percentage of student enrollment that is Hispanic (25 percent) and avoids any outcomes-based criteria (degrees awarded to Hispanic students, completion or retention rates, etc). Research shows that almost half of the Latinos enrolled in higher education attend the 200+ four- and two-year colleges that are certified as Hispanic-Serving Institutions by the federal government. Yet there is little conclusive evidence that these institutions promote higher levels of Latino student success than non-HSIs. Shouldn’t we reserve the distinction of being labeled an HSI (and given the federal grant money that goes with it) for those institutions that have the best track records of serving Hispanic students, not only those that enroll them?

When asked in April 2010 about reforming the HSI program, Education Secretary Arne Duncan signaled a willingness to consider outcomes-based criteria, stating that “access is critical … but at the end of the day it is about completion.” However, when asked if he specifically supported changing the HSI grant criteria to reflect outcomes, he deferred, saying, “Let me get back to you on that.”

A year and a half later, the College Board and Pew reports reveal that the challenge of Hispanic college completion looms larger than ever.

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