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Hispanic College Students: On the Road to Graduation

By Lina Guzman, Ph.D., Co-Principal Investigator of the National Research Center on Hispanic Children & Families

A college degree is an important predictor of future economic success, now more than ever before. Higher education can open doors to a wealth of other opportunities; for those who do not earn a college degree, job options and earnings growth can be more difficult.

As a Colombian-American growing up in New York, college helped shape my destiny. Because of it, I found a career path that I love. The “ripple effects” of my education helped me to delay marriage and motherhood to times when I felt fully prepared for each. This path was less true for many in my family and neighborhood who did not go on to college. A year after having graduated from high school, all but a handful of my friends were on the road to parenthood and had started jobs that made it difficult to make ends meet and to weather the storms that inevitably arise during adulthood.

These stories are common across the country and particularly in the lives of low-income Hispanics.

Changing Trends in Hispanic Post-Secondary Education

Hispanics in the U.S. have historically been more likely to drop out of high school and to have children in their teenage years. Fortunately, trends are changing, in part because the desire for education is there.Nearly nine in 10 Hispanics said that college was extremely or very important, more than other racial/ethnic groups. Pew Research Center reported that in 2012, a record 69 percent of Hispanic students enrolled in college upon graduating from high school, compared with 67 percent of non-Hispanic white students. Additionally, both the high school dropout and teen childbearing rates for Hispanics have declined precipitously in recent years.

However, though there are a record number of Latino students getting to the starting gate of college, many don’t get to the finish line. Large and persistent gaps remain in Latino college completion rates. In 2012, only nine percent of young adults who had a bachelor’s degree were Hispanic, though Hispanics made up 19 percent of college attendees that year.

The Benefits of Improving Rates of Hispanic College Completion

Given the size and growth of the Hispanic population and our economy’s increasing reliance on technology, it’s critical to improve the rates of college completion of Hispanics. Enrolling in, attending, and graduating from college yields profound benefits for individuals and society, and the value of a college degree has been continuously rising.

Individuals who graduate from college see an increase in median earnings of $21,100 per year and $830,800 more over the course of their lifetime. While many argue that college is not for everyone (and indeed those interested in skilled-labor jobs can be well served by obtaining vocational training), recent research suggests that college offers benefits for most, if not all. David Leonhardt, a columnist for the New York Times, reports that even students with “bad grades and scores” benefit from attending college. Moreover, individuals, including Latinos, who are the least likely to graduate from college are the most likely to reap its benefits.

Besides economic benefits to the individual, college attendance has important outcomes for family formation and future families. Women who attend college are more likely to have planned pregnancies, which confer numerous advantages to children, both economic and health-based. Additionally, parents’ educational attainment impacts their children’s future success. In 2013, 14 percent of both mothers and fathers of school-age Hispanic children had a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 23 and 27 percent of non-Hispanic black children’s mothers and fathers, respectively, and 41 and 42 percent of non-Hispanic white children’s mothers and fathers, respectively. In order to increase the number of Hispanic children with parents who have college degrees, the number of Hispanic students who graduate from college needs to improve.

Nuanced and Complex Barriers to Completion

Hispanic students complete college at lower rates than their non-Hispanic white peers for a number of complex social and financial reasons. One has to do with the post-secondary institution in which they tend to enroll. Hispanic students (who are often the first in their family to pursue a college degree) are less likely than their non-Hispanic white peers to enroll in four-year, selective institutions and more likely to enroll in community colleges and for-profit institutions that have lower rates of completion.

Additionally, Hispanic students are more likely to be part-time students and to work while pursuing a degree. This prolongs their path to a college degree and, ultimately, makes it less likely.

Pathways to Post-Secondary Success

There is a growing database of effective strategies that help Hispanic college students complete college, and policy recommendations for community, state, and federal actors. With eyes towards the future U.S. economy, it is especially important to support Latino college students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, where they are greatly underrepresented, in part because they have fewer STEM degrees.

Hispanic College Graduates: The Future of the U.S. Workforce

Hispanic children currently make up roughly one in four of all children in the United States, and by 2050 are projected to make up one in three, similar to the number of non-Hispanic white children. How Hispanic children fare, particularly in terms of their educational attainment, will have a profound and increasing impact on the social and economic well-being of the country as a whole. Supporting Hispanic students’ college aspirations and attainment is truly supporting America’s future.

For Hispanic students graduating from college this month: Felicidades en su graduación from the National Research Center on Hispanic Children & Families. We look forward to your future successes and to the success of Hispanic students to come.

Stay Connected with the Center!

You also can stay connected with us through our LinkedIn group, on Twitter @NRCHispanic, or send us an email to info@HispanicResearchCenter.org.

The National Research Center on Hispanic Children & Families is supported by grant #90PH0025 from the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, the Administration for Children and Families, or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


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