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Driving along US-411N toward Maryville, Tenn., surrounded on both sides of the road by rolling green hills and slow-moving cows, it seems surprising to hear a DJ on the FM dial breathlessly announcing a merengue show in nearby Knoxville — in Spanish.

In fact, Tennessee, like fellow Appalachian states Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, is home to one of the fastest-growing Hispanic populations in the country, much younger, on average, than the region’s white and black populations, and with larger families.

This has not escaped the attention of the region’s colleges, most of which have historically drawn heavily for their students on the region’s white population.

But that population is shrinking, said Deborah Santiago, vice president for policy at Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit that advocates for Hispanics in higher education.

“It’s in their economic self-interest to learn how to attract and retain Latinos,” Santiago said.

Hispanics in higher education
Maryville College. (Photo: Maryville College) Credit: Maryville College

Doing this will not be easy. Limited experience with college, lower household incomes, and other factors have made Hispanics less likely to enroll in and succeed at college. But as universities across the country contend with flat and even declining enrollments, they, too, are starting to go after the biggest growth market: Hispanics.

Recruiting Hispanics to college is “one of those wonderful situations where you can do the right thing morally as well as financially,” said Irene Burgess, vice president for academic programs at the Appalachian College Association, which has given small grants to eight member colleges aimed at helping them attract and retain Hispanic students.

Recruiting Hispanics to college is “one of those wonderful situations where you can do the right thing morally as well as financially.” — Irene Burgess, Appalachian College Association

Already the largest and fastest‐growing minority group, Hispanics will account for 60 percent of population growth through 2050, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Yet they have the lowest education attainment levels of any group in the United States.

Raising those levels will have a nationwide impact, said Santiago, whose organization has provided some technical assistance to the Appalachian colleges. “One of two workers in the future will be brown,” she said. “If they’re not getting quality education, they’re not going to pay as much into the Social Security system … The reality is, we’re not going to meet our economic goals as a nation unless we educate this population.”

The Appalachian region may be only the first to attack this issue with a concerted effort. “We’re going to see more of this in the future,” said Leticia Bustillos, education policy expert at the National Council of La Raza, one of the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights organizations.

It’s simply practical. In Tennessee alone, the Hispanic population increased 134 percent between 2000 and 2010,  third fastest of any state. The population of Hispanic children 5 years old and under grew 178 percent, the second highest rate of growth in the nation, while Tennessee’s overall population of children rose just 7 percent.

At the same time, only about one in six of the state’s Hispanics had an associate’s degree or higher, less than half the state average. In Knoxville, more than one in four Hispanics lived in poverty, twice the city’s overall rate.

Vandy Kemp, vice president and dean of students at Maryville College, said she had an “a-ha” moment when she saw projections showing the population of white, public high-school graduates shrinking by 15 percent nationwide through 2023 — and that of Hispanics increasing by 88 percent.

“I thought, ‘Now what are we going to do about that?’” she recalled.

Hispanics in higher education
Jose Perez. (Photo: Maryville College)

Maryville, founded in 1819 and one of the South’s oldest colleges, got one of the grants to increase its enrollment of Hispanics. The college has launched what it calls the Villamaria initiative, which has included hosting first-ever events involving local Hispanics and starting a Latino Student Alliance.

“The Hispanic community was invisible to the college before Villamaria,” Kemp said.

Now, not only has the college’s admissions director purchased a list of students who identified themselves as Hispanic on their SAT tests and live within 500 miles of the campus; administrators think existing financial aid can help them to afford the school. The college is also developing plans to endow scholarships for undocumented immigrants.

Jose Perez, a junior majoring in psychology and one of 27 Hispanics among the college’s 1,168 students, has a business card that identifies him as a “Maryville College ambassador.” He said he hopes speaking to the parents of prospective Hispanic students in their native language makes them feel more welcome. As for the students, he hopes it means something for them “to see someone like themselves.”

Perez is typical of most of Maryville’s students in that he comes from a town nearby — Mosheim, about 80 miles to the northeast. His father works on tomato farms. He said his family never thought he could go to a college like Maryville because of its cost — nearly $32,000 this year. But after scholarships and loans, his out-of-pocket expenses this year will be $5,000, he said.

Perez said he recognizes the economic importance to colleges of attracting more Hispanic students, but he has taken to his role as a sort of calling. “I know there’s a huge business aspect to all this … (but) for me personally I don’t see (it). I care about helping Hispanics,” he said.

One person he seems to have helped decide to apply to Maryville is Anthony Funes Lopez. A 17-year-old high school senior from nearby Lenoir City, Funes Lopez said his father, a carpenter, always told him, “go to college and make something of yourself, so you don’t have to work at some crappy job like me for $8 an hour.”

When it came time to choose where to go, however, he first thought of nearby community colleges, which are cheaper and closer to home. On a teacher’s recommendation, he visited Maryville. Perez took him to some classes and a meeting of the Latino Student Alliance. Seeing Perez “so proud of being Hispanic” made an impression on him, Funes Lopez said.

He applied, was accepted and is waiting on his financial-aid package. He hopes to enroll in the fall, making him one of 27 Hispanics on track to do so, up from only 12 who entered this year. Then he will become the first in his family to go to college — which makes him both excited and anxious.

“It feels great … to make something of myself,” he said. “But I don’t want to disappoint my family.”

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