Latinos Reach New Highs in College Enrollment

By: María J. Obando

For the first time, Latinos are the largest minority group enrolled in four-year colleges and universities, according to the non-partisan Pew Hispanic Center Report released in August 2012. With the enrollment number surpassing two million in 2011, Latino students account for 16.5% of the 18- to 24-year-old students nationwide. In two-year colleges, Latino students also reached a record share of 25.2% of the total student enrollment. The rise in Hispanic population is one significant factor that contributes to these numbers. According to a Pew Hispanic Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, more than 12.4 million Latinos attended public schools pre-K through 12th grade in October 2011, making up 23.9% of total public school students enrolled across the country. The demographic trends suggest that these students will make up a large share of public high school enrollment as they progress through kindergarten and elementary school in years to come.


SLI tutors latino high school students and helps them prepare for college.

In addition to the increase in the Hispanic population overall, the report finds that the increase in high school graduation rates among Latino students warrants equal attention. Today, more Hispanic youth are eligible to attend college than ever, due increased high school and General Education Development (GED) degree rates. In 2011, Latinos ages 18 to 24 who graduated from high school achieved a milestone for Hispanic high school completion at 76%. In short, the rise in Hispanic population growth, coupled with greater eligibility for Latino students to attend college, has resulted in the noteworthy minority on college campuses. The growing community of educators working towards improving graduation rates and college access here in North Carolina, a state with one of the fastest growing Latino populations in the nation, has enthusiastically welcomed the findings of the Pew Report. Innovative programs like the student-led Scholars Latino Initiative (SLI) at UNC-Chapel Hill, for example, mobilize 100 volunteers annually to provide more than 8,000 hours of service in order to help Latino high school students realize their dream of college attendance.
The Pew Hispanic Center Report certainly presents a momentous milestone for Latino students, and it provides a positive forecast for higher education among the Latino youth population. But, there is still much work to be done in order to maintain this strong Latino presence. Although the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (Snyder and Dillow, 2012) shows new highs for Hispanic students who receive associate and bachelor’s degrees, the number of degrees conferred still falls short of their non-Hispanic student counterparts. Sung praises aside, the recent report seems to gesture at the concern for college retention and completion. Indeed, there are many considerations regarding the increase of Latino student enrollment in colleges and universities that directly affect whether students will successfully finish their studies. These under-represented students, many of who are the first in their family to attend college, have particular needs that often extend beyond the educational domain.

Latino voices are nuanced and multiplicitous–they speak about migration, family, and culture, among other things. Generally, Latino youth’s narratives intersect with daily educational pursuits. Both individual and collective narratives serve to remind our education system about the need to consider Latino students’ personal backgrounds and how they may impede academic potential and success. A profitable plan of action that acknowledges and well serves the Latino presence in higher education will accommodate students’ needs. Before productive changes in universities can be implemented, however, educators, faculty and staff alike have a responsibility to learn about Latino students’ narratives, many of which center on the migration experience.

In North Carolina, there are several endeavors that make these narratives more easily accessible. Directed by Associate Professor Mimi Chapman, PhD, in UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Social Work, and developed with Robert Colby, Ph.D., the “Yo Veo” project wonderfully tackles the need to inform North Carolina educators about Latino youth’s personal stories. Of particular interest to this project is how these stories, especially those concerning the migration experience, impact academic performance and students’ mental wellness. In fact, the project’s inception came as a response to the question, what do we do and how do we allow for productive change when a large number of Hispanic youth unexpectedly enter our classrooms? Although “Yo Veo” and its corresponding training for teachers using photojournalism is happening at the grade-school level, this is precisely the same question college educators and administrators need to ask.

In the same vein, The Latino Migration Project (LMP), a program of the Institute for the Study of the Americas and the Center for Global Initiatives at UNC-Chapel Hill, creates and advances knowledge about the Latin American experience. In January 2010, LMP and UNC-Chapel Hill’s Oral History Program launched a collection of oral histories on issues concerning (im)migration to North Carolina and Latino communities. UNC-Chapel Hill students in courses relevant to this line of research continue to conduct interviews for the collection, which include the voices of immigrants, professionals who work with immigrants, educators, students (first and U.S.-born second generations), policy-makers, and community leaders. Although this project tackles the Latin American community more broadly, many of the archived oral histories provide a cogent context for which to better understand the Latino college student. These interviews certainly showcase migration experiences as well as the subsequent effects of migration–many of which may manifest as cultural barriers that impede Hispanic academic success. These oral histories are but a starting point as far as strategizing how to better serve the rising population of Latinos on college campuses nationwide.

Unfortunately, quantitative data often provides a limited and two-dimensional portrayal of Latino students. Productive change will only unfold if we learn about these students through their individual and collective narratives. We cannot guarantee that every student will succeed in higher education, but we can make sure that their narratives influence the development of educational policies and practices that will best serve their collegiate academic pursuits.

The full Pew Hispanic Center Report can be accessed at
For more information about SLI, visit
For more information about Dr. Chapman’s project, visit
Collection of oral histories in North Carolina on the issue of migration can be found at


About the author:

María J. Obando is an intern with the Latino Migration Project. She is a graduate student in English and Comparative Literature at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is interested in 20th century multi-ethnic literature, particularly how Latinos are represented in drama. Her focus on dramatic texts includes their historical, cultural and literary contexts as well as their performative aspects.



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