Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Recent Changes in the Entry of Hispanic and White Youth into College

II. Introduction

There has been marked growth in the enrollment of Hispanic freshmen in colleges in recent years. Nationally, there were 24 percent more Latino freshmen in post-secondary institutions in 2001 than in 1996.1 The increase in Hispanic freshman enrollment cut across different types of colleges and across state boundaries. Latino freshman enrollment in four-year colleges increased by 29 percent and enrollment in two-year colleges was up 14 percent between 1996 and 2001.

This report examines how higher education has accommodated the growth in young Hispanic college entrants between 1996 and 2001 in seven states: California, New York, Arizona, New Jersey, Texas, Florida and Illinois. A state-level, rather than national, analysis is appropriate because there is much diversity across states in the structure of higher education (Goldin and Katz, 1998). The seven states covered in this report accounted for nearly 80 percent of the total Hispanic first-time, full-time enrollment of freshmen in 2001. Thus, the trends in college enrollment in these states are critical for an understanding of the post-secondary prospects of Latino youth. This analysis compares the enrollment change at two-year and four-year colleges, both public and private, in these seven states using data compiled by the U.S. Department of Education.

The enrollment of Latino youth in four-year colleges increased in all seven states between 1996 and 2001. The largest gain—55 percent—was in Florida. Hispanic first-time freshman enrollment in two-year colleges increased in five of the seven states and the largest increase—30 percent—was in Texas. The nature of the increase in white freshman enrollment between 1996 and 2001 was considerably different.2 In the seven states covered in this report, the growth in white freshman enrollment tended to be concentrated in four-year colleges and universities. Enrollment of whites in two-year colleges actually declined in five of seven states. White enrollment at non-degree-granting institutions also fell in five of seven states. As a result, the gap between white and Latino youth in enrollment at four-year institutions widened significantly in several states, most notably in California. Thus, even as Hispanics were making gains in overall college enrollment, the share of white freshmen enrolling in four-year colleges increased more than among Latinos.

Enrollment in a two-year college rather than a four-year institution can have important implications for the likelihood of Latino youths’ acquiring a degree, especially a baccalaureate degree (Ganderton and Santos, 1995; Fry, 2004). Colleges vary widely in their graduation rates (Carey, 2004), and some kinds of colleges are more successful as an entry point into higher education for Latinos than other kinds of colleges. College type is also decisive for the youth’s college experience. Some campuses are exclusively residential; other campuses are devoid of dormitories. The nature of the faculty, instructional resources, the characteristics of the student body and other key facets of the college experience vary by the type of college. Finally, the student’s satisfaction with college varies by the kind of college attended. Overall college satisfaction is also strongly positively related to whether the student leaves home to attend college and to the college’s distance from home (Astin, 1993).

Recent changes in college enrollment reinforce the marked increase in the Hispanic presence at the nation’s college campuses that has occurred over the past 30 years. In 1972 there were an estimated 70,000 Hispanic college students between the ages of 18 and 19. By 2002 their number had increased to 360,000, a more than fivefold increase. Over the same period, the total number of 18-to-19-year-old college students increased from 2.7 million to 3.6 million, an increase of 901,000. Thus, Hispanic youths have been a major component of growth in undergraduate enrollment, accounting for a third of the overall increase.

The increasing number of young Latinos on college campus is not only a function of rapid population growth but also reflects improved educational performance among Hispanics. From 1970 to 2000 the share of U.S.-born Latino 18- to-19 year-olds who completed high school increased from 40 percent to 60 percent (Vernez and Mizell, 2002). Also, more Hispanic youths are pursuing post-secondary education. Among 1972 high school seniors, 51 percent of Hispanics went on to college. By 1992, 70 percent of Hispanic high school seniors went on to college (Adelman, 2004).

This report is based on an analysis of the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Post-secondary Education Data System (IPEDS) fall enrollment counts from the public use data files (see the Appendix). The IPEDS data are the only uniformly collected information on enrollments at individual colleges and universities. The fall 2001 enrollment counts are the most recent data available at the time of writing.

This analysis exclusively examines changes in the enrollment of first-time, full-time freshmen students seeking a degree. In fall 2001 there were a total of 14.1 million undergraduates enrolled in U.S. colleges (NCES, 2003a). Of these, about 2.2 million were first-time, full-time, degree-seeking freshmen. This analysis excludes nontraditional, older undergraduates so as to focus on traditional college students who begin postsecondary work in an intensive manner shortly after graduating from high school.3 Other researchers commonly use the first-time, full-time degree-seeking freshmen category to approximate the nation’s young college-going cohort (Carnevale and Rose, 2003; Nettles, Millett and Einarson, 2000).

  1. The terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” are used interchangeably.
  2. Unless otherwise noted, “white” refers to non-Hispanic white in this report.
  3. The IPEDS does have enrollment counts by the age of the undergraduate, so one might envision capturing the “traditional college-going cohort” by age. However, the information on age cannot be cross-tabulated with the race/ethnicity of the undergraduate.
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