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Hispanic Graduation Madness

Friday, March 19, 2010

How well do colleges designated by the government as ‘Hispanic-Serving Institutions’ actually serve Hispanic students? Not very well, it turns out.

In the next couple of weeks, the nation will experience two distinctly American events. First, of course, Americans will catch their yearly case of “March Madness,” a three-week-long preoccupation with college basketball, particularly the institutional rivalries that pit some of our best-known colleges and universities against one another. The tournament is not only a celebration of sportsmanship, amateur athletics, and overachieving underdogs, but a commemoration of our higher education institutions as a whole, the engines of upward mobility and equal opportunity that undergird the country’s economic future. The announcers will highlight the teams that beat the odds in spite of their high academic standards and superb record of graduating players. Duke University’s Mike Krzyzewski will be lauded for his commitment to his players’ academic success and graduation, not just their athletic prowess. West Virginia’s Bob Huggins, meanwhile, will probably avoid any criticism of his dismal record of graduating scholarship basketball players, provided his Mountaineers keep winning.

Second, Americans will receive their 2010 census questionnaires. The 2010 census is likely to confirm and expand on what the 2000 installment documented: America’s Hispanic population is rapidly growing, especially among the youngest age groups. Thirty-seven percent of America’s 44 million Hispanic residents are under the age of 20. By 2020, Hispanics will make up 22 percent of the nation’s college-age population. Moreover, the Hispanic population is expanding in parts of the country that have not previously had a sizeable Hispanic population. In 2007, the states with the highest rates of Hispanic population growth were in the South and Midwest, not the Southwest.

This is not an argument for a simple-minded, top-down system of regulation, but a call to make data on institutional quality more transparent to consumers.

The academic achievements and college attendance of Hispanic students will become increasingly important in the years to come. Without high levels of Hispanic degree completion, we are unlikely to regain our mantle as the nation with the highest college degree-attainment rate in the world. Indeed, if the group of schools going to the Big Dance is any indication of things to come, it is clear that institutions of higher education will have to do a better job of helping their Hispanic students over the finish line. If you examine Hispanic graduation rates at 54 of the 65 teams angling for an NCAA championship that had at least 10 incoming Hispanic students in each of their 1999, 2000, and 2001 classes, you find that less than a third of them had Hispanic graduation rates over 70 percent; half of the 54 teams had white graduation rates of 70 percent or better. Hispanic students graduated at the same rate or better at only four of the 54 colleges and universities. At half of the schools in the Big Dance, Hispanic graduation rates lagged behind whites by 8 percentage points or more.

As a report I co-authored and released this week points out, the problem at the schools in the NCAA tournament is just the tip of the iceberg. My colleagues and I used graduation rate data from the National Center for Education Statistics to examine how 641 institutions of higher education (those with at least 10 bachelor’s degree–seeking Hispanic students in each of their incoming classes in 1999, 2000, and 2001) compare to one another. We coded schools according to their admissions selectivity, since graduation rates are clearly a function of the types of students that enroll at a particular college, not just the policies and practices in place at a given institution. And we looked at the percentage of first-time, full-time bachelor’s-seeking students that graduate with a bachelor’s degree in six years.

By 2020, Hispanics will make up 22 percent of the nation’s college-age population.

We found that, nationally, 51 percent of Hispanic students graduate in six years, compared to 59 percent of white students. Even after acknowledging admissions selectivity, white students still graduate at higher rates than their Hispanic peers, and do so at a relatively constant margin (about 8 percentage points in each selectivity category). The schools with the highest Hispanic graduation rates in each category also tended to have the highest white graduation rates, as well as smaller gaps, on average, than the average gap for the category. These data suggest that schools that are successfully serving their Hispanic students are not doing so at the expense of their other students, but that an institutional commitment to completion for all students pays dividends across the board, and particularly for Hispanic students.

Some schools in the country are classified by the Department of Education as Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) because they have a student body that is 25 percent or more Hispanic. The designation makes them eligible to obtain grants under Title V of the Higher Education Act. According to our analysis, schools classified as HSIs do not appear to do any better in getting their Hispanic students over the finish line than schools not classified as HSIs. Importantly, HSIs had white graduation rates that were considerably lower than the white graduation rates at non-HSIs. This produces smaller gaps between white and Hispanic graduation rates at these HSIs, but observers should not interpret this as evidence that HSIs are closing the gap by actively graduating more of their Hispanic students.

Even after acknowledging admissions selectivity, white students still graduate at higher rates than their Hispanic peers, and do so at a relatively constant margin.

Finally, the big bright spot in the report is the performance of Hispanic women; at all levels of selectivity, they vastly outperform Hispanic men and perform as well as, if not better than, white men. While white women are the top overall performers, Hispanic women are closing the gap as you go up in school admissions selectivity.

Despite some criticism about excessive “hand-wringing over graduation rates,” Hispanic parents and prospective students, particularly those who are the first in their family to attend college, should know exactly what they are getting themselves into. Will this investment pay off with a bachelor’s degree? Which schools appear to have the best record of graduating their Hispanic students? The report details a few lessons and policy implications, including:

• Reforms that help to disseminate information about which schools are within their reach, both financially and academically, and which schools have a successful track record with Hispanic students could lead to a better match between the qualifications of Hispanic students and colleges and universities. This, in turn, will raise graduation rates and reward schools that have a good record.

• An institutional focus on and commitment to high levels of retention and completion for all students is a crucial prerequisite to maintaining and improving the rate at which Hispanic students complete a bachelor’s degree.

• The criteria that designate a college or university as an HSI should be augmented to reflect an institution’s performance on outcomes, such as student retention, graduation, and labor-market success. At present, while schools have incentive to enroll more Hispanic students in order to become an HSI, they have less incentive to ensure that they receive a degree.

Hispanic parents and prospective students, particularly those who are the first in their family to attend college, should know exactly what they are getting themselves into.

This is not an argument for a simple-minded, top-down system of regulation, but a call to make data on institutional quality more transparent to consumers. If prospective Hispanic prospective students and their parents were aware that two schools in the same admissions category had vastly different records of success with their Hispanic populations, they could choose accordingly. Disseminating this information to parents and guidance counselors would foster a better “match” between prospective students and the schools that have a successful history of graduating students like them.

The NCAA selection committee chooses schools for the tournament based on their record of beating quality opponents, using reams and reams of data to assess who makes the cut. We must equip parents and students to be just as clear-eyed and data-driven in their college choices, particularly when the choice between one school or another can pay dramatically different dividends.
For their part, many institutions have a lot to learn from Coach K. When it comes to promoting college completion, more American colleges and universities must become Krzyzewski-like (and less Huggins-like) in their commitment to seeing all of their students, particularly those who are most at-risk of dropping out, earn a college degree.

Andrew Kelly is a research fellow in education policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Andrew Kelly and Chad Aldeman describe the “False Fronts” behind higher-education accountability systems. Mark Schneider explains how “Obama’s Education Hopes Face Achievement Realities,” while Christina Hoff Sommers outlines “Baseless Bias and the Second Sex” in higher education. Edward Blum also notes the effects of Hispanic immigration on voting rights in “Are We a Nation of One Vote, One Person?”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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