Latino Youth Lag White Peers In Completing College

Contact: Cindy Jobbins, 215.575.4812


Washington, DC - 06/23/2004 - A new study from the Pew Hispanic Center finds that the college dropout rate for Hispanics may be every bit as significant as the high school dropout rate. In fact, the white/Latino gap in finishing college is larger than the high school completion gap.

According to the study, young Hispanic high school completers are as likely as white high school completers to enter postsecondary education. Yet, young Hispanic undergraduates are half as likely as white undergraduates to finish a bachelor’s degree. 

For many of these Hispanic students, the failure to earn a degree will have a life-long impact: The wage gap has greatly widened between those with a degree and those with some college education but no degree. 

The Pew Hispanic Report, “Latino Youth Finishing College: The Role of Selective Pathways,” reveals that Latino undergraduates are at a disadvantage in competing for college degrees because of two important factors: first, many Hispanic undergraduates disproportionately enroll on campuses that have low bachelor’s degree completion rates, and they have different experiences than white students even when they enroll on the same campuses. At several key junctures Latinos fall behind whites with similar qualifications. 

In addition, even when Hispanics are on the same college pathway as white youth, they are less likely than their white peers to graduate. The best prepared Latinos fare worse than white youth of equal preparation. Similarly, the least prepared Hispanics fare worse than their least prepared white peers. The report, using newly available data, focuses on Latinos who both complete high school and are prepared on graduation to embark on a post-secondary education that could lead to a bachelor’s degree. The report can be found on the Center’s web site: www.pewhispanic.org. 

In order to better understand the disparities in obtaining college degrees, the Pew Hispanic Center commissioned an analysis of newly available data from a U.S. Department of Education survey that tracked a nationally representative sample of some 25,000 youth from the time they were in the eighth grade in 1988 until 2000 when most were 26 years old. The National Educational Longitudinal Survey (NELS) collected detailed information from academic records making it possible to assess the quality of the high school education that students received and also followed the student’s performance through the college years. The data allowed Pew Hispanic Center researchers to compare college outcomes for equally well-prepared high school youth of different racial and ethnic groups. 

The report, authored by Richard Fry, senior research associate at the Pew Hispanic Center, shows that the gap in white/Hispanic bachelor’s degree completion could be substantially closed if these well-prepared Latino youth attended the same kinds of colleges as similarly prepared whites. Hispanic youth benefit from going to more selective colleges and universities because these institutions often do a better job in getting their Hispanic undergraduates to graduate than less selective institutions. 

The report’s key findings include: 

° Among the best prepared young college students, nearly 60 percent of Latinos attend non-selective colleges and universities, in comparison to 52 percent of white students. Among students who are less well prepared—those in the second to fourth quintile of high school academic intensity (the majority of both Hispanic and white students)--nearly 66 percent of Latinos initially enroll in “open-door” institutions. Less than 45 percent of similarly prepared white college students initially enroll at open-door institutions. 

° Selectivity matters because college selectivity and college completion go hand-in-hand. Students that are initially enrolled at a more selective college or university are more likely to finish a bachelor’s degree than those on the less selective college pathway. 

° In attainment of a bachelor’s degree, disparities are evident across the spectrum of higher education. For example, white youth beginning at community colleges are nearly twice as likely as Hispanic youth beginning at community colleges to finish a bachelor’s degree. Significant gaps in completion rates are evident among those starting in the four-year college sector as well. Comparing the best prepared white and Latino college students at non-selective colleges and universities, 81 percent of whites complete a bachelor’s degree and 57 percent of Latinos. 

° A notable exception to the disparities between Latinos and whites is the enrollment of the nation’s best prepared Latino undergraduates at the nation’s most selective colleges and universities, i.e., the pathway that links the best and the brightest to the very top of the undergraduate education pyramid. In this very limited universe, highly qualified Latinos enroll at top schools at the same rate as their white peers. 

° At the other end of the spectrum, Hispanics at all levels of preparation show a greater propensity to enroll in “open-door” institutions than their white peers. However, there is a substantial gap in bachelor’s degree completion among these students. Among two-year college entrants that are “minimally qualified” for college, 16 percent of whites finished a bachelor’s degree versus only 7 percent of Hispanics. 

° To illustrate the significance of these findings, the Pew Hispanic Center conducted a simulation analysis of possible outcomes for the 689,000 Latinos enrolled in 8th grade in October 2002. If they attended the same kind of colleges as similarly prepared whites in the NELS cohort, rather than the pathways followed by Latinos, the expected number of bachelor’s degrees to come from this class would increase by 20% from 125,000 to 150,000. Alternatively, if these Latinos pursue the same pathways as Latinos in the NELS cohort but graduate from college at the same rate as their whites peers, BA completion jumps by 42% from 125,000 to 177,000. 

° A broad variety of factors help determine Latinos’ pathways through post-secondary education and their bachelor’s degree completion rates. Some that distinguish them from white youth and that are examined in this report include, delayed enrollment in college, greater financial responsibility for family members, and living with family while in college rather than in campus housing. 

The Pew Hispanic Center is a project of the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication. It was founded in 2001 with support from The Pew Charitable Trusts. The Center conducts non-partisan research that aims at improving understanding of the Hispanic population.

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