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Latino High School Grads Entering College At Record Rate: Let's Assure Their Success

Latinos are on the cusp of something phenomenal: breaking the stereotype that college is not for them.
 
 
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The image of the Latino or Latina in mainstream media and primetime television programming is under transformation. Instead of the traditional roles of the immigrant maid or the linguistically challenged truck driver, we now have talent on full display such as Selena Gomez on The Disney Channel’s “Wizards of Waverly Place" and Sophia Vergara of ABC’s “Modern Family.”

But there is still room to grow in popular culture to reflect the Latino reality in this country. The next logical step is the Latino or Latina as the intellectual and academic.

With high school and college graduation season upon us, in the near and immediate future, you are more likely to see many more Latinos crossing the stage with a diploma in hand than ever before. A recent Pew Hispanic reportshows that Latinos are on the cusp of something phenomenal: breaking the stereotype that college is not for them.

According to Pew Hispanic, seven in 10 U.S. Latino high school graduates, or 69 percent, in the class of 2012 went to college last fall. That's a record-high college enrollment rate for Latinos, and it's the first time Latinos have surpassed white (67 percent) and black (63 percent) students, even as they lag behind Asian-Americans (84 percent.)

This is a milestone given that a little more than a decade ago, only 49 percent of American Latino high school graduates were enrolling in college. For Latinos, their 40 percent increase since 2000 is the most by any racial/ethnic group.

Here's more good news: Latino youth are also dropping out of school at much lower rates. The Latino high school dropout rate has fallen by half over the past decade — from 28 percent in 2000 to 14 percent in 2011. This is the largest percentage drop for any group during this period.

So, to those who think Latinos do not value or invest in education and by extension, refuse to climb the assimilation ladder in civic society, think again. This encouraging news should be embraced and applauded given Latinos are the fastest and youngest growing demographic in the U.S. Latinos make up more than 16 percent of the U.S. population—50.5 million. But, by 2050, it is estimated that 30 percent of the U.S. population will be Latino.

Because Latinos have the largest percentage of any group in the United States for the under 18 years cohort, at 34 percent, much of the future growth is expected in the Latino school age population. More than 12.4 million Hispanics were enrolled in the nation’s public schools pre-K through 12th grade in October 2011, according to a Pew Hispanic Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

This is why K-12 instruction is of vital importance in the equation of Latino education success. We need to acknowledge this potential and invest in areas of high Latino populations. It is clear that the educational success of these citizens will in all likelihood determine the strength of a state’s workforce and economy including respective counties and cities.

According to Pew Hispanic,Latinos make up nearly 23.9 percent of our K-12 student population nationwide. This is up one-fifth, from 19.9 percent in 2005 and 16.7 percent in 2000. This phenomenon is even more glaring in select states. For example, in seven states, Latinos comprise more than 25 percent of this population. And, in the 2009-2010 school year, Latinos accounted for more than 50 percent of the K-12 students enrolled in California and New Mexico schools. Texas recently reported Latinos to be in the majority in public K-12 schools as of the 2010-2011 school year.

Thus, ensuring the educational success of Latinos is not a “Latino thing.” I would argue that it is an interest of U.S. national security. As we look to the future, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by 2020, nearly one in four college-age U.S. adults will be Latino.

Today, in four states—California, Florida, New Mexico and Texas—Latinos already make up at least 20 percent of college students As more Latinos attend and graduate from high school, these states are likely to see increased Latino enrollment at public colleges and universities. It is imperative that states plan for this shift in student population in order to ensure that Latino students succeed and complete a degree.

It is clear that if the United States is on target to pursue the goal of having the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by 2020, improving college completion must become the focus of national and state postsecondary policy. The economic vitality of these and other gradually-growing Latino states will largely be determined by increasing the number of citizens who earn a college degree in order to keep pace with the increased number of jobs requiring postsecondary education.

So, besides access, what steps can private and public institutions of higher learning take to ensure Latinos remain in school and earn a degree? First, continue to support and finance important federal and state-level initiatives such asTRIO programsand Puente at the high school level.

Second, provide options for students to receive career and workforce training as part of their high school and college experience. Third, encourage these institutions to measure and report the comparative effectiveness of their minority retention programs such as Summer Bridge.

And, while we are at it, why not help simplify the transfer process between colleges and universities? This is important given that a little under 50 percent of Latino students enroll in community colleges. Also, with the proliferation of online courses at major and elite universities, we need to ensure that Latino students have evening, weekend and online options for taking courses, transferring credit and ultimately, obtaining a degree. Lastly, high school standards must be improved as a way to better link K-12 exit skills with college entrance requirements.

While targeting Latino students is important, increasing retention and college completion for all students is essential. It is in our collective best interest to ensure that the future of America be the best educated and trained so that we as a country can remain highly competitive in the global workforce.

In the words of Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, dean of UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, ensuring the educational vitality of Latino youth “is not a narrow demographic question pertinent to only one group in the American mosaic. This is fundamental to all of us."

I second this.

Jaime Dominguez, PhD, is a college adviser and lecturer in the Department of Political Science and the Latino/a Studies Program at Northwestern University. His research interests include race and ethnicity; Latino and urban politics. He is also a Northwestern Public Voices fellow through The OpEd Project.

 
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