With Latino Americans expected to make up more than 20 percent of the college-age population by 2020, most policy makers recognize that it will be nearly impossible to meet President Obama’s college completion goals without significant improvement in the graduation rates of Hispanic students, which have long lagged those of other racial and ethnic groups, as numerous studies have documented.
A new analysis digs more deeply into the data surrounding Latino graduation rates, and while it confirms the overall reality that Latino students trail their white peers at all types of institutions, no matter how selective, it also reveals wide variation in the relative success of institutions with similar student bodies. That matters, the authors say, because it shows that the educational practices of institutions matter.
“The data show quite clearly that colleges and universities cannot place all of the blame on students for failing to graduate,” said Andrew P. Kelly of the American Enterprise Institute, who co-wrote the study, "Rising to the Challenge: Hispanic College Graduation Rates as a National Priority," with Mark Schneider of the American Institutes for Research and Kevin Carey of Education Sector.
Because the data are drawn from the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, as are the underlying statistics for most analyses of college graduation rates, the macro-level finding of the new study — that 51 percent of Latino full-time students nationally earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared to 59 percent of white students — is not at all new.
But like the authors’ previous study (also funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), "Diplomas and Dropouts," the new one goes beyond that by examining how the rates break down by the level of selectivity of the institutions. (The gap between Latino and white students varies from about 6 percentage points at the most academically competitive institutions to about 8.5 percentage points at non-competitive, open admissions colleges.
The most compelling data, though, show the enormous range in the graduation rates of institutions within those selectivity groupings. Among "competitive colleges" and "very competitive colleges" — the groupings that include the largest number of Latino students — the gaps between the institutions with the highest and lowest graduation rates for Hispanic students are more than 50 percentage points.
"To look at this another way, a competitive student enrolled at the school with the highest graduation rate is, on average, more than seven times as likely to receive a bachelor’s degree than a competitive student enrolled in the lowest-performing school," the authors write.
Interestingly, 20 of the 60 top colleges that fall in the top 10 in their category "graduated a higher proportion of Hispanic students than white students," the study found. "In the very competitive and most competitive categories, Hispanic students at the top ten institutions are keeping pace with their non-Hispanic peers. Hispanic students attending the top ten schools in the highly competitive and competitive categories actually graduate at higher rates, on average, than their white classmates."
The authors also find significant variation within those colleges designated by the federal government as Hispanic-serving institutions.
Those findings and others suggest, the authors say, that what institutions do matters. Among the recommendations they make as a result of the data and of interviews with officials at high- and low-performing colleges:
"Though some suggested that policies and programs specifically targeted toward Hispanic students, like Latino studies departments and multicultural centers, can help to boost student engagement, these programs are unlikely to be successful in isolation from a broader, institution-wide effort to promote retention and degree completion."
"The [Hispanic-serving institution] designation, and the benefits that come with it, should be augmented so it also reflects an institution’s record in educating, retaining, and graduating those students. The performance criteria need not be based on completion rates alone, and they should be weighted to reward schools that demonstrate success with students who are particularly at risk of dropping out. Such a distinction should be awarded to schools that have a proven record of serving, rather than simply enrolling, Hispanic students."