Report says colleges must act to improve graduation rate of Hispanic students

After enrolling at Post University in Waterbury three years ago, Karina Heredia dropped out after her freshman year – a fate all too common among Hispanic students across the nation, says a study released Thursday.

Barely half of the nation’s Hispanic college students complete bachelor’s degrees within six years, and the numbers are considerably worse at some schools, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) said in the new report.

At Post, for example, just 23 percent of Hispanic students completed their degrees within six years, compared with 42 percent of non-Hispanic white students, according to the report.

“The tuition was really too high,” said Heredia, now taking courses at Naugatuck Valley Community College. “I had to take a personal loan out. It was too much for me.”

Graduation rates, Hispanic and white, 3-18-10

The AEI report, “Rising to the Challenge,” says colleges must help students overcome financial hardship, family pressures and other hurdles in order to boost graduation rates among Hispanics, the nation’s youngest and fastest-growing population.

“Completion rates for Hispanic students consistently lag behind those of their white peers and are distressingly low at many colleges and universities,” the report said.

Among the findings:

  • On average, 51 percent of Hispanic students at American colleges complete a bachelor’s degree in six years or less, compared with 59 percent of white students.
  • In 2007, Hispanics made up 15 percent of the U.S. population and 12 percent of full-time college students but received only 7.5 percent of bachelor’s degrees.
  • Hispanic women graduate at consistently higher rates than Hispanic men.
  • Hispanic students are likely to enroll at less selective colleges even when they are qualified to attend schools with higher standards. Because the less selective schools have lower overall graduation rates, the odds are greater that Hispanics, as well as other students, will drop out.
  • Hispanic families “often suffer from a lack of information about the true cost of college, the type of colleges they are qualified to attend, and college practices and culture.”

Graduation rates varied widely among different types of colleges. At highly selective colleges, most students, including Hispanics, completed degrees. At Yale University, 95 percent of Hispanics graduated within six years.

However, only 30 percent of Hispanics at Central Connecticut State University completed degrees, compared with 44 percent of white students. The University of Bridgeport had a 28 percent graduation rate for Hispanics and a 40 percent rate for whites.

By 2020, Hispanics will account for more than one-fifth of the college-age population in the United States, the report said.

The 2006 economic forecast “New England 2020” projects a decline in the percentage of young people with bachelor’s degrees in New England over the next decade, and the low graduation rate among Hispanic students is a key factor, said Connecticut Higher Education Commissioner Michael Meotti.

“It’s one of the most significant challenges in higher education,” he said.According to his department, Hispanics account for 11 percent of the state’s population, 9 percent of college enrollments and 6 percent of college degrees.

Although graduation rates still lag, there has been an increase in the number of degrees awarded to Hispanics in the past two years, state figures show. “Perhaps we have some early signs of the trend turning around,” Meotti said.

Nevertheless, educators remain concerned.

Some Hispanic students arrive on campus unprepared for the rigors of college while others can’t handle the financial burden, said Estela Lopez, a former vice chancellor at Connecticut State University and now a senior program advisor for Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit advocacy group for Hispanic students.

“Many are going back to community colleges,” she said. “It’s less costly, and they can work part-time,” she said.

Lopez also said Hispanic students often are reluctant to take out loans to pay for college. For many, “the notion of borrowing money is not culturally accepted,” she said.

The AEI study said the adjustment to campus life can be especially difficult for Hispanics who are the first in their families to attend college. Family pressure also can influence some to leave school, the report said.

“We see situations where our students act as translators [for their families], and we also see students having to financially contribute to the household,” said Maria D. Martinez, director of the University of Connecticut’s Center for Academic Programs, a program supporting low-income, first-generation students.

Among the most successful programs to keep students in school, the study said, are summer institutes to acquaint incoming students with campus life

“It’s kind of like boot camp,” said 21-year-old Amelinda Vazquez, a senior at Eastern Connecticut State University, who attended a summer program on campus before entering as a freshman. “It was a great time for me to test myself… It really helped us out a lot.”

Vazquez, vice president of the university’s Organization of Latin American Students, works three jobs to help pay for her education. She expects to graduate this spring with a degree in business administration.

She will be defying the odds at Eastern, where only one out of three Hispanic students completes a degree, according to the AEI report.