News Column

A Positive Learning Curve

Record numbers of middle-class Hispanics are enrolling in college, despite escalating costs.

By Scott Williams
HISPANIC BUSINESS® magazine, Dec. 2001

The more education you have, the more money you’re likely to earn, and the more likely your children will follow in your footsteps. That basic axiom is as valid for the Hispanic middle class as for other U.S. demographic groups, studies show.

“There is a direct and positive correlation between what you learn and what you earn,” says Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU). “The real passport to the middle class is a higher education.”

U.S. Hispanics who have attained middle-class status, however, are likely to have been born here, according to Frank D. Bean, director of the Center for Research on Immigration, Population and Public Policy at the University of California at Irvine. “It’s important not to lump everybody together,” he points out. The distinction between foreign-born Hispanics and the native born is that most immigrants, regardless of their origin, attain relatively low educational levels, drawing down the overall averages for education and income.

Over a two-decade period, the proportion of native-born Hispanic men who completed college rose almost 44 percent, from 10.7 percent in 1979 to 15.4 percent in 1998. That compares with a 30 percent increase (from 25.3 percent to 32.9 percent) among Anglos during the same time period. The proportional increase among U.S.-born Hispanic women was even greater –from 8.7 percent in 1979 to 17.1 percent in 1998.

Total Enrollment in Higher Education*
  1988 1998 Percent change
Hispanic 680 1,260 85.3
Asian American/Pacific Islander 497 902 81.5
African American 1,130 1,585 40.3
White, non-Hispanic 10,289 10,196 -0.9
*In thousands.
Source: American Council on Education, "Minorities in Higher Education 2000-2001"

“Minorities in Higher Education 2000–2001,” a study by the American Council on Education, reports other statistics and trends:

•From 1976 to 1996, the number of Hispanics enrolled in college increased 202 percent, compared with 13 percent for Anglos and 44 percent for African Americans. •The number of Hispanics enrolled in college in 1998 was 1,260,000. •Fifty-three percent of Hispanic undergraduates are enrolled in two-year institutions. •About 75 percent of Hispanic undergraduates are concentrated in California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois. •More Hispanic college students (45 percent) than Anglo or African-American students (39 percent and 40 percent, respectively) are enrolled part time. •The top three majors for bachelor’s degrees awarded to Hispanics in 1998 were business, social sciences, and education (see chart). The top three disciplines for associate’s degrees were liberal arts, business, and health professions.Although college enrollment is up, the high-school dropout rate among Hispanics remains grim – 30 percent for ages 16 to 24 in 1998. That figure is more than double the rate for African Americans (14 percent) and more than three times the rate for Anglos (8 percent), according to White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans. Hispanics currently represent 13 percent of the school population in grades 9–12; that figure is expected to rise to 23 percent by 2030.

Jaime Chahin, dean of applied arts at Southwest Texas State University, notes that “a baccalaureate degree really gives you the ticket to the middle class.” So for more than half of Hispanic college students, enrollment in two-year schools may limit future income growth. He says improvement is needed in Hispanic students’ transfer rates from two-year to four-year institutions.

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