Esta página no está disponible en español.


Latinos In Higher Education: Today And Tomorrow

By Sarita E Brown; Deborah Santiago; Estela Lopez

March 1, 2003
Copyright © 2003
ProQuest Information and Learning. Copyright HELDREF PUBLICATIONS Mar/Apr 2003. All rights reserved. 

Volume 35, Issue 2; ISSN: 0009-1383

In 1988 Change published an article, "The Undergraduate Hispanic Experience," which focused on the stories of Latino students enrolled at institutions in California, Texas, and Illinois. That article provided a vehicle for students to speak with their own voices about college, culture, and the importance of higher education.

This current article also focuses on Latino students, but in quite a different educational context. Since 1988, practices and policies in institutions of higher education have been dramatically affected by changes in affirmative action and the diminishing emphasis on need-based financial aid-even while growing numbers of Latinos have collegiate ambitions.

The fastest growing ethnic group in the nation, Latinos have become a force that higher education must consider with more overt intention. A recent report for the Pew Hispanic Center shows that Latinos represented almost 13 percent of the U.S. population. According to R. Fry, author of the report Latinos in Higher Education: Many Enroll, Too Few Graduate, the college-going rate for Hispanics between the ages of 18 and 22 has increased to 35 percent and their enrollments in undergraduate education by over 200 percent in the last 25 years-about 10 percent of Latino high school graduates now attend college (over 1.3 million).

Just over 10 percent of Hispanics in the country now have a college education-less than the national average for adults, which is over 25 percent, but a large increase from their educational attainment even 10 years ago, according to the 2000 Census. Higher education's success in ensuring Latino educational achievement will become an increasingly important benchmark for assessing its contributions to the economic and civic health of this country.

In this article, we begin by describing the current condition of Latinos in higher education, then we explore what educational advocates and institutional leaders can do to facilitate and accelerate their academic success.


Over the past several years, research reports from notable organizations, such as the RAND Corporation and the Pew Hispanic Center, have focused on Latinos in higher education. This is a big change from even a few years ago, when little literature on the topic existed. Historically, there's been a greater emphasis on research regarding Latino students in elementary and secondary education, especially focusing on bilingual education, immigration, and dropouts.

In 2000, the high school dropout rate for Latinos was almost 30 percent, more than double the rate for African Americans and more than three times the rate for white students (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002). Some policymakers argue that cutting the dropout rate of Latino youth is the top priority for improving Latino advanced educational attainment. Without plugging this hole in the educational pipeline for Hispanic students, they argue, we will never substantially increase Latino enrollment in higher education.

Any action strategy to increase the college-going rate for Latino students must include efforts to increase the numbers who graduate from high school ready to pursue bachelor's degrees. However, the emphasis on the high school dropout rate masks the fact that the Latino community is also making progress in higher education. More disturbingly, media focus on high school dropouts and the limited public attention given to Latino higher education achievement reinforces two bad habits-the reliance on the deficit model when talking about Latinos and the invisibility of Latino high-achievers. To rely exclusively on the deficit model diverts attention from the real accomplishments that can be the foundation for national strategies to ensure Hispanic intellectual achievement at the highest levels.


What are some of the characteristics of Latinos in higher education today? Many are first-generation college students, are low-income, have a less academic high school education than their peers, and enroll in community colleges. They are concentrated geographically in a small number of states and institutions of higher education.

Just over 50 percent of all Hispanics enrolled in higher education are in two states: California and Texas (National Center for Education Statistics, 2001). Further, over 40 percent of Latino students are enrolled in the approximately 220 institutions identified as Hispanic-- Serving Institutions (HSIs) (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000).

A large number of Latinos in higher education are also nontraditional students. They are older, work, attend college part-time, and often are also caring for a family-all characteristics that influence the decisions Latino students make in participating in and completing higher education. If we want large numbers of Latino students to thrive in higher education, the question is, what kinds of advocacy and institutional leadership will help ensure their success?


Advocating for Latino educational achievement in higher education is critical. This work includes enhancing public understanding of the challenges Latinos face in accessing higher education and then addressing those challenges through supporting public policies that help Latino educational achievement and targeting resources toward the effort.

Enhancing Public Understanding. Parents want what is best for their children, and Latino parents are no exception. In fact, the reason many Hispanic immigrants come to this country is for the opportunity to create a better life for themselves and their families. However, a myth exists, expressed in the media and by some educators and public leaders, that Hispanic parents do not value higher education. Why is this?

The family is highly valued by Hispanics and remains a key influence even when making decisions about education. While some portion of the Hispanic population has been here since before the creation of the United States, there is today a significant number of immigrant and first-generation students who are unfamiliar with our education system and how to traverse it, and they look to their families for guidance.

But unlike other immigrant groups, many Hispanics come from their home countries with little formal education. Add their low literacy levels in both English and Spanish to their unfamiliarity with the U.S. education system, and many Latino parents are limited in their ability to guide their children to high school completion and to help them with higher education decisions.

Students navigating the system alone while also tending to their current education keenly feel the absence of family and community members who have already mastered the process. As first-- generation college-goers, many Latino youth must rely on formal sources of information to tell them how to prepare for and participate in higher education. information available through the high school counselor's office or through occasional college fairs typically does not target parents. It is the young people who must inform their parents about, and then ask for their assistance in, the new enterprise.

Thus, what we encounter at a familial level is an information gap, not a value gap. The challenge for advocates of Latino education is understanding how Latino parents and first-generation college students view the education system and then informing them about the many choices they will need to make about it and the likely consequences of those choices.

The cost of college is a chief concern. Many Latino families do not know the actual cost of a college education or the sources of financial aid and therefore conclude college is not affordable for their children. Hearing news reports about increasing college tuition and student-aid programs that do not keep pace with rising prices reinforces the impression that a college education is beyond their financial grasp. When parents are asked the annual cost to attend college in focus groups, they give answers ranging from $3,000 to $30,000, or even as high as $50,000.

Without a solid understanding of the mechanisms to finance a college education, many Latino families and their students either do not consider college or limit their choices based on sticker price. This financial concern leads many Latino students to choose a community college, because it is closer to home and more affordable. Community colleges serve many important purposes for large numbers of students. However, the ambition to begin at a community college and then transfer to a four-year institution is not often realized.

Beyond financial aid, the admissions process is another big hurdle for many first-generation students. Research shows that if students take the SAT, apply for college, and then apply for financial aid, their chances of going to college are "very high," regardless of the SAT score or the amount of aid offered (National Center for Education Statistics, 1997). But students need to know how to register for the SAT and apply for financial aid, as well as that they should take the SAT and apply for federal financial aid before they apply for college. None of this is self-- evident for those not versed in the education system.

Even while they are mastering the process of applying for and financing a college education, students and their families worry about whether they "belong" in college. Legal challenges to affirmative action in higher education in California and Texas, on-going legal debates about the practice, and media coverage that exposes open hostility to minority participation lead many Latino and other minority students to conclude that they are not welcome in higher education.

While minority families with a record of college-going may be concerned about the personal impact of changes in educational policies and the politics of higher education, their previous success makes them less likely to believe that they do not belong in college. But messages that they are not wanted, that college is now harder to get in, and there will not be much help once they enroll are extremely discouraging to first-generation college aspirants (even ones with outstanding academic credentials) and their families. Higher education institutions need to mitigate the impact of these messages and design communication and recruitment practices to reach first-generation college students and their families.

A national strategy to address this information gap is College is Possible, offered by the American Council on Education. It focuses on getting the word out early on and often to students and parents alike that a college education is both affordable and possible. A local application of this strategy is part of the Kellogg-funded ENLACE (ENgaging LAtino Communities for Education) initiative, involving 13 communities throughout the country (Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, New Mexico, New York, and Texas) in a linked effort to support students ranging from the seventh grade to college entrance.

Some colleges and universities are working independently to inform the Latino community about the pathway to college. National and local awareness campaigns like these can help close the information gap and support Latino families in making informed decisions about college education.

Education Policy and Targeted Resources. Education policy has a profound impact on the access and retention of students from all backgrounds, including Latino students. But only since the mid- 1990s have there been broader federal and state policies that focus explicitly on Latinos in higher education.

In response to legal challenges and public policy decisions, the late 1990s witnessed a rollback of affirmative action admission practices at public colleges and universities in several states. These included those with the largest Latino student populations-California, Texas, and Florida-which enroll in total about 60 percent of the Latino student population in college. All three states subsequently developed strategies to promote broader access to higher education for all students. Each state adopted a "percent" plan, in which a given percentage from the top of the graduating class of each high school in the state would be given automatic admission to the states' universities.

In 1997, Texas adopted a "10 percent solution," which mandates that all 35 public universities must offer automatic enrollment to students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class. Similarly, California adopted a "percent plan" for the top 5 percent of high school graduates, and Florida adopted an admissions plan for the top 20 percent of high school graduates who also complete a college-- preparatory curriculum.

Research has shown that many Latino youth are segregated in schools with poor academic and physical resources. Thus, while more Latinos might thus be eligible for automatic admission, they may not be academically prepared to take advantage of this benefit. Further, this automatic admission does not address students' financial or support needs. Many universities in these states are finding that they still must combine need- and merit-based financial aid and a network of academic and social support to successfully recruit and retain Latinos in higher education.

Another important policy change has been the legislation passed by both Texas and California that allows students, regardless of residency status, to enroll as residents to attend some public colleges, as long as the students have attended a state high school for three years and graduated from a state high school. This policy allows students to pay in-state tuition and thus makes college more accessible to many Latino students.

The most significant federal higher education legislation affecting Latino access to and success in higher education is the Higher Education Act. This legislation authorizes student outreach and support programs such as TRIO and GEAR Up run by the U.S. Department of Education. TRIO includes six federal programs across the country and Gear UP operates at the state and institutional level. These programs have helped facilitate increased access to higher education for Latinos and other historically underserved populations while also promoting institutional and community alliances. The GEAR Up program in Chicago, for example, is coordinated by the Chicago Education Alliance in partnership with Northeastern Illinois University and prepares over 15,000 students in 35 public schools for high school graduation and to enroll and succeed in college. All of these initiatives have helped facilitate increased access to higher education for Latinos and other historically underserved populations.

While most programs within the Higher Education Act provide the means to address the challenges facing Latinos, Title V-the Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) program-plays a unique role. First authorized in 1998, Title V provides support on a competitive basis to HSIs. HSIs are accredited, nonprofit institutions of higher education that enroll a quarter or more Hispanic undergraduate full-time-equivalent (FTE) students, as long as the institutions have low educational and general expenditures and enroll a large number of needy students.

The underlying principle of institutional capacity-building as a means of enhancing learning environments for all students is the basis for many federally funded programs. With Title V the Department of Education supports the premise that increasing financial support to HSIs will increase their capacity to serve Hispanic students.

In 2000, there were about 220 HSIs in the United States and Puerto Rico. Of these, 30 percent (66 institutions) are in California, serving almost 130,000 undergraduate FTE Latino students. About three-quarters are two-year institutions, and most are public. While most HSIs were not created explicitly to serve Latinos (except in Puerto Rico), they are located in communities that have high concentrations of Latino students. These attributes create an opportunity to aim resources, services, and information about opportunities for higher education at large numbers of Latino students throughout the K- 16 educational pipeline.

Identifying a specific set of institutions to receive state or federal resources is one way to facilitate success for Latinos in higher education. But not all Hispanics attend HSIs, so aid to HSIs, while important and necessary, cannot be the only answer. Of the 50 institutions graduating the largest numbers of Latinos with bachelor's degrees in the United States, 20 are in California. Among these are UCLA, the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin). Focusing on the policies and practices of institutions that graduate larger numbers of Latino students is another way to help ensure Latino educational achievement. For the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which will soon occur, we must examine the institutional characteristics of colleges and universities that enroll and graduate significant numbers of Latino students and find additional ways to help them serve those students.

Strategies to increase the number of Latino college graduates must not only be a matter of state and federal policy but must also engage the private sector. The Higher Education Act also is the vehicle through which the federal government makes financial aid available. But given the magnitude of the unmet financial need of Hispanic students and its dampening effect on their graduation rates, these resources need to be augmented by private ones.

In 1975, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund (HSF) was founded to provide financial aid scholarships to needy Latino students with academic promise in the United States and Puerto Rico. In its 27 years of operation, it has awarded more than 51,000 scholarships totaling nearly $60 million, making it the largest Latino scholarship organization in the country. In 1996 the HSF developed a mission to double the rate of Hispanics graduating from college by 2010. To that end, in 2002 it awarded scholarships worth nearly $19.3 million, funded in large measure by businesses and foundations.

The effort to facilitate Latino student success can benefit from synergies created by public and private sector cooperation.Therefore, in 2001, HSF launched the HSF Institute to secure public funding to improve Latino higher educational achievement, nurture new strategic partnerships, and persuade national decision-makers that investing in this generation of college-- going Latinos is necessary to the development of America's next generation of professionals, civic leaders, and public servants.


For policies designed to improve Hispanic educational achievement to be implemented effectively at a college campus requires thoughtful leadership, since it is that leadership that determines student success, regardless of ethnicity. Campus leaders also shape the climate by articulating institutional goals and holding faculty and staff accountable for meeting well-defined expectations with respect to student success. Effective policy implementation requires a commitment from all sectors of the campus to eliminate barriers that are especially high for first-generation students.

A commitment that begins at the top and permeates the institution is seen in the faculty, whose composition should mirror the student body. It is also evident in the hiring of new colleagues who value the student population. It is present in the administration, where leaders make sure that efforts to retain students are not isolated but systemic. It is seen in the institutional culture, where creating a successful environment for Latino students is understood as a learning experience for all instead of a burden to be borne by some.

A successful campus welcomes Latino students as assets and views not only their arrival on campus but their success as part of achieving its mission. This commitment goes beyond programs that provide Latino students with a "home" or "center" where they will feel less isolated. These special programs are usually on the fringes of the campus, and their staff members are not central to the core decision-making processes of the institution. While such programs may help, their impact is usually small.

An example of such a campus is provided by Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU)-a comprehensive institution in Chicago, that became an HSI in 1998. The Enrollment Management Committee-charged with setting enrollment and retention goals-welcomed the designation. Although some members proposed raising admissions standards, the committee decided that it wanted to focus on broader and more creative ways of helping current and future students succeed so it sponsored a number of workshops with well-known retention experts.

The university also adopted a student/learner-centered goal that defined specific actions the entire community might take in improving achievement. Among these was an early intervention program for students on probation after one semester, which succeeded in reducing the percentage of students on probation by almost half.

Faculty had the opportunity to discuss with outside speakers the creation of learning communities that would better engage first-year students; many such communities were later implemented. A Faculty Teaching and Learning Center, established with external funding, offered workshops on pedagogy, including assessment that can be used to improve learning. Advising first-year students also became a priority.

At the end of five years, retention of first-year students increased by 7 percent, with Latino students retained at the samerate as white students. Indeed, in Proyecto Pa'lante ("Project Going Forward"), a special program that had been created years before to address atrisk Latino students from the inner city, the retention rate for first-year students increased to 90 percent, better than that of regular students. In addition to providing counseling, academic advising, tutoring, and career development for Latino students, Proyecto Pa'lante also involved parents through orientation and other family-oriented activities.


These recommendations to address the needs of Latinos in higher education, drawn from organizations and institutions that are making an important difference in the educational opportunities and attainment of Latino youth, are by no means new. But they are worth repeating in an effort to focus attention and to prompt action.

1) Foster a K-16 strategy to education. This entails aggressively confronting the low expectations many school personnel have of and for Latino students. By supporting their completion of a rigorous high school curriculum and increasing their retention and graduation rates, high schools will better prepare Latino students for college. Colleges, especially HSIs in communities with large Latino populations, can help foster curricular improvements in high schools and the alignment of educational expectations.

2) Increase awareness throughout the educational pipeline about the challenges facing Latinos. Educators and institutional officials, both in the K-- 12 system and in higher education, need help in understanding the needs of Latino students and in developing strategies to improve their educational opportunities and achievement.

3) Close the information gap by widely disseminating accurate information about preparing and paying for college, and more effectively target outreach to Latino communities. This does not only mean making information available and translating it into Spanish. Concerted outreach is needed early in the student's educational career and continually thereafter. This dissemination effort must also include parents as well as students, since parents help to guide the educational choices of their children.

4) Provide an appropriate level of financial aid-federal, state, institutional, and private-to help Latino students go to, stay in, and graduate from college. Financial need seriously constrains the higher education decisions of Latino students. The financial aid system must also be made easier for students to understand and to navigate.

5) Improve articulation between two- and four-year institutions of higher education. Given that so many Latino youth begin in two-year institutions (44 percent, compared to 30 percent each of white and black students), effective articulation would improve the opportunities of Latino students to continue their education and pursue degrees beyond those offered at two-- year institutions.

6) Disseminate and promote the wider use of proven strategies for helping Latino students achieve at high levels, and develop better strategies based on best practices. There are many organizations and programs in place today that are successful in improving the educational levels of Latinos. Others could benefit from their example. However, these programs often focus their resources on providing services directly to their students rather than thoroughly evaluating or widely disseminating their programs.

7) Recruit and retain faculty and staff members who reflect the student body. The inclusion of Latino faculty and staff at all levels of an institution both embodies and strengthens the commitment to ensuring Latino student success. Diverse perspectives enhance the learning of all students, but successful Hispanic academics in particular can model for Latino students their own potential for intellectual achievement.

Futurists talk about the "information economy" and the need for highly educated workers. The country's future workers are today's students. As the fastest-growing ethnic group in the nation, Latinos' intellectual capacities are crucial to the economic and civic health of this country. By improving Latino educational success through the highest levels, colleges and universities have an opportunity to solve what could be an intractable social problem for American society, the underpreparation of a large portion of its workforce and citizenry, and to cultivate a robust new generation of citizens, leaders, and professionals.


Sarita E. Brown is the president and CEO of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund Institute. She was previously executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans. Deborah Santiago is the vice president for data and policy analysis for the Los Angeles Alliance for Student Achievement. Formerly she was deputy director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans and worked at the U.S. Department of Education in higher education policy. Estela Lopez is currently vice chancellor for academic affairs at the Connecticut State University System. Prior to this position, she was provost and vice president for academic affairs at Northeastern Illinois University.



The terms "Hispanic" and "Latino" are used interchangeably in this article and refer to a group of Americans who share a language and common cultural origins but who come from diverse nations and backgrounds with distinctive histories and socio-economic and political experiences. The three largest Hispanic subgroups in the United States are Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Cuban-Americans, but the number of immigrants from Central and South America has been growing very quickly over the last 15 years. These sub-- groups are concentrated in different parts of the United States, their economic circumstances vary, and the timing and causes of their immigration differ. As diverse as this population is, so are the many strengths and needs of the Latino student population.

As first-generation college-goers, many Latino youth must rely on formal sources of information to tell them how to prepare for and participate in higher education.

The underlying principle of institutional capacity-building as a means of enhancing learning environments for all students is the basis for many federally funded programs.


* American Council on Education:

* College is Possible campaign:

* ENLACE (ENgaging LAtino Communities for Education) Initiative:

* Hispanic Scholarship Fund Institute:

* Hispanic Scholarship Fund:



* ACE Center for Policy Analysis, "Access and Persistence: Findings from 10 Years of Longitudinal Research on Students," Crucial Choices: How Students' Financial Decisions Affect Their Academic Success, 2002. Online at www.acenet. edu/programs/policy

* Fry, R., Latinos in Higher Education: Many Enroll, Too Few Graduate, Pew Hispanic Center, 2002. Online at

* National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), "Confronting the Odds: Students At Risk and the Pipeline to Higher Education," U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 1997.

* NCES, "Digest of Education Statistics, 2001, Table 211," U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 2002.

* NCES, "Dropout Rates in the United States: 2000," U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 2002.

* NCES, "Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), fall enrollment, 1999-2000," U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 2000.

* U.S. Census Bureau, "Population Profile of the United States: 2000," Internet release, 2000. Online at 2000/chap02.pdf.

* U.S. Census Bureau, "Educational Attainment of the Population 15 Years and Over, by Age, Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin," Table 1, Internet release, December 19, 2000.

* Vernez, G., and Mizell, L., Goal: To Double the Rate of Hispanics Earning a Bachelor's Degree, RAND Corp., 2001, commissioned by the Hispanic Scholarship Fund. Online at cw

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback