Latino Americans, the largest and the fastest growing ethnic minority in the United States, are half as likely to hold a college degree as non-Hispanic white adults, an education gap that has been widening since 2000, according to a June 2018 report.
“For us, it was surprising just how low the Latino degree attainment numbers are and how significant the gaps are in certain states,” said Andrew Howard Nichols, senior director of higher education research and data analytics at The Education Trust, a nonprofit group that conducts research and advocates for low-income students. “Everyone is pushing degree attainment. But we won’t reach our goals for a college-educated workforce if we ignore the racial gaps that exist.”
Fewer than a quarter, or 22.6 percent, of Latino Americans ages 25 to 64 held a two-year college degree or higher in 2016, the report said. By comparison, more than 30 percent of black American adults had a college degree, and nearly half, or 47.1 percent of white adults did. That’s nearly a 25 percentage point gap in college attainment between Latinos and whites.
In some states, the college attainment gap is much larger. In California, for example, Latinos make up 36 percent of the adult population, but only 18 percent of Latino Californians hold a college degree. By contrast, 53 percent of white adults in California have a college degree. A similar college attainment gap exists in Colorado.
Although more Latinos have been attending and graduating from college over the past couple of decades, they have been improving their college attainment rate more slowly than other racial and ethnic groups while whites are boosting their college graduation rates more rapidly. More troubling, the researchers didn’t see strong positive signs in the Latino pipeline. They found that younger Latino adults, ages 25 to 34, didn’t have much higher college attainment rates than older Latino adults, ages 55 to 64. This same stagnation in college degrees between older and younger adults was also true for black Americans. “There very little inter-generational progress over time,” said Nichols. (In contrast, younger adult whites are much more likely to have college degrees.)
What makes the low Latino college degree figures striking is that the trends differ from the graduation data that colleges report. Typically, Latinos have higher graduation rates than black students; that is, they are less likely to drop out and more likely to earn a four-year degree within six years. When you count the numbers of students who are graduating from each college compared to the number of students who enroll, the Latino-white graduation gap has also been closing.
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However, many Latino students never enroll in college so starker gaps appear when you count up all the degree holders in the nation or within a state.
Immigration explains some of the college attainment gap. Almost 30 percent of Latino Americans who were born in the United States have a college degree. That’s very close to the black college attainment rate. By contrast, only 17 percent of Latino adults who were born abroad have a college education. Affording college is a larger obstacle to undocumented immigrants, who often cannot qualify for in-state tuition at public colleges or obtain federal financial aid.
Latino education varies a lot from state to state. In Florida, a third of Latino adults hold a college degree. The number of Latinos with college degrees is rapidly growing in Florida and the Latino-white gap is one of the smallest at 10 percentage points. However, Florida has large Cuban and Puerto Rican populations, many of whom come from well-educated families. Roughly 40 percent of Cuban Americans and 30 percent of Puerto Ricans have college degrees. By contrast, only 17 percent of Mexican Americans have college degrees, with many Mexicans emigrating from poor, uneducated regions in Mexico. Florida’s success with Latino higher education may have more to do with the particular Latinos who live in Florida than with how the state supports Latino students academically or financially.
New York’s statistics are also confounding. More than a fourth of the state’s large Latino population has a college degree. That’s an impressive 9 percentage point jump since 2000, putting the state in first place for gains in Latino college attainment. However, the gap between Latinos and whites remains stubbornly high at 29 percentage points.
The reasons why Latinos are struggling to obtain a college education are complex. Latinos are disproportionately poor, living in low-income communities where the schools aren’t preparing children for the rigor of college courses. As they enter adulthood, many are supporting their families and don’t have the luxury to focus on schoolwork. Nichols pointed out that Latinos are more likely to opt for community colleges and for-profit colleges, where graduation rates are lower. Many are the first in their families to attempt a degree.
Reports like this one are a helpful first step in identifying the most difficult obstacles. The next step at The Education Trust is to count how many Latinos ever enrolled in college in each state so that we can better understand how much of these low college numbers are due to college dropouts versus those who never attempt college. The solutions will be different depending on the answers. And they’ll help determine the future of the U.S. workforce and economic prosperity.
This story about Latino college education was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.