Latino High School Graduates Overtake Whites in College Enrollment

Latino students across the United States reached a milestone in 2012 as they surpassed their white counterparts in college enrollment. According to a new survey by the Pew Hispanic Center, a record seven-in-ten Hispanic 2012 high school graduates enrolled in college in the fall, slightly higher than white students. By comparison, in 2000, only 49 percent of Hispanic high school graduates enrolled in college the following fall.

Pew’s data, culled from reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau, also revealed that young Hispanics are much less likely to drop out of high school than they were in 2000. In October 2012, there were 134,000 Hispanic recent high school dropouts. Twelve years earlier, there were 101,000. The raw number may be higher now, but, given the significantly greater number of Latino students enrolled in high school, it nonetheless marks significant progress.

Despite these encouraging numbers, the Pew report also details how Latino continue to lag Whites on a number of key educational measures. For example, young Hispanic college students are less likely than their white counterparts to enroll in a four-year college (56 percent versus 72 percent), less likely to be enrolled in college full time, and less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree.

The report also adds a caveat to the improving college entry rate. That finding does not imply that young Latinos are more likely to attend college than young whites.

“Recent high school completers are only a subset of youth. Some youth recently dropped out of high school, others dropped out in earlier years, and some were never enrolled in U.S. schools,” the report states. “The immediate college entry rate only refers to youth recently graduating high school. Furthermore, it is possible that a youth could delay attending college after being out of high school for some time.”

Still, the increasing rate of college entry for young Latinos is unmistakable, but pinpointing reasons for this improvement isn’t easy. Although the report’s authors concede that task is beyond the scope of their work, they do offer a few possible explanations and trends as contributing factors.

For one, it is possible that the nation’s high unemployment over the past few years has compelled more Latino youths to stay in high school and enroll in college. Since the beginning of the Great Recession five years ago, unemployment among Latinos ages 16 to 24 has increased by seven percentage points. It’s probable that a tightening job market has made staying in school a more attractive option.

Another factor could be the importance that Latino families place on a college education. According to a 2009 Pew survey, nearly all Latino youths (89 percent) and older adults (88 percent) believe that a college degree is important for getting ahead in life. That same survey also noted that under half of Latinos ages 18 to 25 said they plan to get a college degree, citing financial pressures and poor English skills as reasons why they cut off their education.