Minorities Leading Rise In College Enrollment

A new study by the Pew Research Center shows the level of college enrollment is higher than it has been in 40 years, since the baby boomers faced the Vietnam War. Leading the pack in the mass shift to college life are Latinos and other minorities. NPR Education Reporter Claudio Sanchez explains what factors could be leading to the uptick in minority enrollment. And Bill Flores, president of the University of Houston-Downtown, a school whose minority population is 78 percent of the student body, offers a first hand take on the shifting demographic.

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TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

And we're wondering what's changed a year out from Michael Jackson's death. Although we know his estate's made a billion dollars since June 25th of last year, that's one change.

First, though, the last time the United States saw college enrollment jump as much as it has, was 40 years ago when, in order to dodge the draft, baby boomers opted for college.

Now a Pew Research Center study shows college enrollment is up nearly six percent. And the bulk of the increase comes from minority students with Latinos leading the pack.

With us to discuss this, we have NPR education reporter Claudio Sanchez. And also, Bill Flores, the president of University of Houston-Downtown, an institution whose minority population is 78 percent of the student body. Welcome.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Thank you very much.

Mr. BILL FLORES (President, University of Houston-Downtown): Thank you.

COX: Claudio, community colleges and trade schools are showing the highest levels of increased enrollment among minorities, according to this research, what do you make of that?

SANCHEZ: This is a way for students to become more gainfully employed, hopefully with more credentials, but it's also a way to kind of bid their time. I mean, we're looking at a really, really tough job market. So you spend maybe two, three years, if not four, in college, kind of waiting for things to improve. And this report shows that this is not unlike other periods of time.

They do point, by the way, to three big reasons for this especially Latino enrollment - increases. Number one, this simply reflects the demographics, the growth of the Latino population in particular in high schools. Yes, Latinos do have the highest dropout rate. But because of their sheer numbers, more and more of them are graduating. So that's reflected in this.

You're also seeing an unemployment rate of 21 percent among 16- to 19-year-olds. And that, again, means that these kids are simply coming out of high school and if they had known (unintelligible) to college, they're not finding any jobs, so they might as well give it a shot.

Also significant, though, is that the graduation rate of Latinos is at a historic high. Back in October of 2008, for example, it reached the peak of 70 percent. That's an all-time high.

COX: One of the patterns, Bill Flores, about entering college or being in college is not just enrollment, but its retention and as Claudio was mentioning a moment ago, graduation. What is being done to keep these students in college and getting them out of college, graduating, I mean?

Mr. FLORES: I think that all universities that are recruiting Latinos or seeing a rise in their Latino populations are realizing that a large number have come in with special needs. Many are first in their families to be in college. They graduated from high schools where they didn't get sufficient mathematic skills or writing skills that they really need to succeed in college. So you need special support programs. You have to help them.

Other thing is forming communities, learning communities. Where the more that they are able to work as a group with two or three other people, the more they feel a part of the university, the more they feel like they're going to succeed. The third is engaging them in their communities. You have people that come from working class and poor communities. Often they're getting a degree because they want to do something for their communities be a doctor, be a lawyer, be a teacher, a social worker, something like that. And they're anxious to do that as soon as possible.

COX: Look down the road five years from now, Claudio, if you can, because President Bill Flores was talking about how the culture is changing on college campuses. And I'm thinking back to the days when Latinos were first getting there and Chicano studies was a very big part of the academic curriculum. Five years from now, how do you see the college landscape changing?

SANCHEZ: The answer to this is a little complicated. First of all, we're talking about native-born Hispanics because, as we know, the immigration issue, you know, continues to be an issue. We continue to see an increase in the overall Latino population, so as a percentage of that population, we're still going to see low numbers for Latino enrollment in colleges.

Having said that, I am a little skeptical because I don't know about the University of Houston, but the retention rates are atrocious even in two-year colleges. And two big reasons is kids can't afford it, even the average tuition for community colleges these days for two or three years about $10,000. That may not sound like a lot. And a lot of students do qualify for federal and financial aid.

But keep in mind that a private college tuition these days is over $20,000 for for-profit schools, where a lot of Latinos are gravitating. These are the schools the trade schools, the schools that are giving students entry into high tech industries and so forth. That's a lot of money. Public four-year institutions, about $16,000.

You know, for working families, especially first-time college students, the first in their families to go to college, this is a lot of money. And I think many of them get discouraged once they see how much debt they're going to have.

And often even if you go to a high tech, you know, a school with that offers you an engineering degree, let's say, these people are still paying upwards of 40, 50 percent of their earnings initially towards paying that debt down. And I think that's kind of scary for a lot of students.

So, down the road, yes, we'll continue to see this growth, but I'm not so sure that it's going to put a dent into the larger question of how highly educated, how much more educated Latinos are as a whole.

COX: Claudio Sanchez is NPR's education reporter joining us here in the studio in Washington. Bill Flores is the president of the University of Houston-Downtown. He joined us from Houston. Thank you, gentlemen.

Mr. FLORES: Thank you.

SANCHEZ: Thank you very much.

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