Educational Difficulties of Men and Immigrants Hinder Efforts to Improve College Attainment

The educational difficulties of men, as well as influxes of immigrants with weak educational backgrounds, have emerged as major challenges to the nation’s efforts to get a larger share of its population through college, according to a new report by the American Council on Education.

"The overarching finding of this report is that the United States is no longer gaining ground in the educational attainment of its population from one generation to the next," Molly Corbett Broad, the council’s president, said at a recent news conference to discuss the report’s findings.

"In general, each generation of younger women in the United States is continuing to reach higher levels of attainment, while that of younger men is falling," Ms. Broad said.

Nearly all of the gains among women are being driven by those who are white or Asian-American, says the report, the 24th edition of "Minorities in Higher Education" issued by the council. The gains being made by black and Hispanic women are not nearly as large, and, on the whole, members of those two minority groups in the 25-to-34 age bracket have lower college attainment rates than they did a generation ago, according to the report, which can be purchased on the council’s Web site.

Ms. Broad said the report’s findings show that the nation is not on track to reach President Obama’s goal of having the United States lead the world, by 2020, in the proportion of its residents with a college credential or degree.

Focus on Hispanic Immigrants
The report, based mainly on data from the U.S. Census and the National Center for Education Statistics, is not the first by the American Council on Education to find that generational progress in educational attainment has stalled. The council group reached similar conclusions in its last such overview of minority educational progress, issued in 2008.

The latest report covers new ground, however, with a special section focusing on the nation’s Hispanic population, which has the lowest rate of high-school completion and the lowest level of educational attainment of any minority group, and has made the least progress in recent decades in the growth of its share of young people going on to college.

"Our nation stands at the intersection of bold new goals for educational attainment on one hand and a pattern of low educational attainment for Hispanic students on the other," Ms. Broad said in a news release. The nation needs to act to improve Hispanic access to postsecondary education, she said, because the "costs of leaving behind generations of the fastest-growing population in this country are too great."

The report, which was released a day after President Obama signed an executive order renewing the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, points out that many of the educational problems of the nation’s Hispanic population stem from the challenges Hispanic immigrants face, and it cautions that failing to take the needs of such immigrants into account "might lead to unsustainable reforms or unrealistic expectations."
It cites an analysis of 2000 Census data, which found that nearly half of young Hispanic adults without a high-school credential had never enrolled in a school in the United States.

"Unlike many other immigrants, most Hispanic immigrants, particularly those from Mexico, come from underachieving economic and educational backgrounds," the report notes.

The chances that immigrants will get a college education are especially low if they had difficulty with school in their country of origin or immigrated to the United States much past early childhood, as most do, the report says.

Being an undocumented immigrant also is associated with low educational levels. Nearly two-thirds of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the 25-to-64 age range have not completed high school, compared with a fourth of those who came here legally.

Hispanic immigrants are more likely than others to be limited in their English proficiency, even when compared with immigrants who have comparable educational-attainment levels. And many have come here mainly to work in low-skill, low-wage jobs, leaving them unwilling to sacrifice potential work hours to go to school and unlikely to have employers who perceive any benefit in helping pay for their educations, the report says.

Groups that advocate stricter immigration policies have cited the low educational levels of many Hispanic immigrants as a reason for tighter border controls.

"One of the reasons we need to stop illegal immigration, and limit legal immigration, is because these people are trying to assimilate and compete in a society that requires high levels of education," said Bob Dane, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

His organization has called for changes in immigration policy to give more priority to the highly skilled and less weight to family connections.

In discussing the council’s report last week, however, Ms. Broad said her organization had no intention of using it to wade into the debate over "issues related to immigration that have a life of their own." She noted that her group has been a strong supporter of the Dream Act, a proposed change in federal law that would create a path to citizenship for undocumented students and make them eligible for some federal student aid.

The council’s report urges the creation of new education and training programs tailored to the Hispanic population now in the United States. In determining which educational services are appropriate, the report says, it is important to differentiate between Hispanic children, more than 90 percent of whom are U.S.-born, and Hispanic adults, less than half of whom were born here.

Diversity Gains
In its analysis of differences in educational attainment among men and women, the council’s report shows a changing picture over time. As of 2008, it says, 42 percent of women and 33 percent of men ages 25 to 34 had at least an associate degree. Among people in the 55-to-64 age bracket, however, men outpaced women among those with at least an associate degree, 40 percent to 34 percent.

Women also have made strides in their representation among college employees. From 1997 to 2007, the share of all college faculty members who are women rose from 36 percent to 42 percent, while the share of all college administrators who are women climbed from 45 percent to 53 percent. Although women still account for only about a fourth of college presidents, they are doing better in this area than they were in the mid-1980s, when they accounted for about a 10th of people at the helm of higher-education institutions.

Among other key findings, the report says:

  • High-school completion rates have remained relatively flat, at between 81 percent and 83 percent, over the past two decades, while college-persistence rates have declined slightly since the mid-1990s. Black students have the lowest college-persistence rate of any racial group.
  • The number of administrators at U.S. colleges rose by 47 percent from 1997 to 2007, a rate almost twice the 25-percent increase in the number of full-time faculty members at such institutions. During that period, the proportion of faculty positions held by minority members increased from 13 percent to 17 percent, while the proportion of administrative positions held by minority members rose from 14 percent to 18 percent. 
  • Minority students’ share of overall college enrollment rose from 25 percent in 1997 to 30 percent in 2007. But they became increasingly concentrated at two-year colleges, where they accounted for 36 percent of enrollment in 2007, compared with 26 percent of the enrollment at four-year institutions. 
  • In all major academic fields, the number of doctoral degrees awarded to minority students rose substantially from 1997 to 2007. White students experienced a decline during that period in the number of doctoral degrees earned in engineering, the humanities, law, and the social sciences. 
  • Among Asian-Americans, both men and women have improved their educational attainment since the mid-1990s, and Asian-Americans had the highest persistence rates among students who entered college as freshmen in 2003. 
  • The nation’s white population has experienced the fastest growth of any racial group in recent decades in its proportion of 18-to-24-year-olds enrolled in college. As of 2008, 45 percent of white students in this age bracket were enrolled in colleges, up from 31 percent in 1988. American Indians had the lowest college-going rates of any group, with just 24 percent of those of traditional college age being enrolled in 2008.


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