Opinion: How some universities are succeeding in serving low-income and Hispanic students

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Attending college promises a secure path to the middle class, but in its mission of educating low-income students and students of color––namely, Latinos––the public university system is failing. Given that communities of color are only expected to grow, with projected population changes showing that non-Hispanic whites will no longer be a majority of college students by 2050, it is more important than ever to future generations and U.S. economic security that college completion rates reflect the country's changing population.

As things currently stand in the U.S., students from the least advantaged populations complete degree programs at a lower rate, take longer to graduate and are burdened with a greater portion of student loan debt.

While there have been improvements in the college-going rate across demographics, the gap in degree attainment is widening. In 2012, only 14 percent of U.S. Latinos over age 25 had bachelor’s degrees compared to 34 percent of whites. A focus on outcomes is crucial to achieving success for all students.

Despite schools in general underachieving in helping all its students achieve success, there are some standout public universities that are reversing these trends and together, they provide a model for other colleges to follow.

While there have been improvements in the college going rate across demographics, the gap in degree attainment is widening. In 2012, only 14 percent of U.S. Latinos over age 25 had bachelor’s degrees compared to 34 percent of whites.

— Antoinette Flores

As detailed in a recent issue brief by the Center for American Progress, students of color have lower college graduation rates, take longer to graduate and have the highest student debt levels.

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In 2012, non-Hispanic white students were 7 percent more likely to graduate on time than Latino students. This graduation gap has slowly decreased over the years, but given that Latinos are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups, more needs to be done. Latino students with high levels of financial need are likely to be debt averse or reluctant to borrow.

Skyrocketing tuition and increased reliance on student loans limit Latinos’ decision to attend college. Those that do attend are twice as likely to have student loan debt as white students.

Latino students also take longer to graduate and are more likely to leave school without a degree. At public four-year institutions, 61 percent of incoming white students attain a bachelor’s degree in five years, compared with just 49 percent of Latino students.

This affects students’ incomes for the rest of their lives: A working adult with a bachelor’s degree earns an average of $18,000 more per year than an adult worker with only some college education. In other words, the populations with the greatest need are burdened with high levels of debt without the promise of a degree.

Given projected demographic changes in the United States, public universities must do a better job of graduating all students at a lower cost.

Despite these statistics, some universities have closed graduation gaps across racial groups while simultaneously enrolling more students from low-income families. Three such schools are the University of California, Riverside (UCR), the University of South Florida (USF) and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC). Sustained university-wide commitment to the success of all students and to providing need-based aid and student support programs have helped accomplish this goal.

As the report shows, all three universities graduate Latino students at a rate equal or higher rate than white students while they have significantly increased their percentage of low income students. Interviews with school representatives detail the policies behind the success.

First, the three universities all discussed the importance of providing need-based state, federal and university financial aid – particularly given trends of rising tuition and states decreasing funding toward higher education.

Second, student support services – such as Summer Bridge programs, first-year transition programs and a commitment to understanding diverse student bodies and their differing needs – all play a role in academic success.

Lastly, all three universities emphasized strong leadership and institutional commitment to improving graduation rates, ensuring degree affordability and student success.

Public universities often explain disparities in student performance as a result of differences in income, academic preparation and the cultural capital of students. These examples show that targeting the success of students from such different backgrounds and their varying needs can change and even equalize student success, regardless of student background.

As the population changes and the share of students of color continues to grow, college outcomes and the disparities across demographics become more important because, for the first time, it would mean that a majority of the population is struggling to finish college while being burdened with higher debt.

Eliminating gaps in degree attainment is not just a student-of-color issue, it is vital for the future of the country. Investing in college completion is important for both the future workforce and the economic performance of the country.

As the path to the middle class, our public colleges and universities must work harder to reverse this trend and assure prosperity for all.