Low Hispanic Graduation Rates Threaten Obama's College-Attainment Goal

March 18, 2010

Colleges are doing a poor job of graduating Hispanic students, no matter how selective their admissions policies, and even when they are designated as Hispanic-serving institutions, says a new report by the American Enterprise Institute.

The report, "Rising to the Challenge: Raising Hispanic Graduation Rates as a National Priority," comes at a time when the Hispanic population in the United States is rapidly growing and the academic success of Hispanic students is seen as crucial to meeting President Obama's goal that the nation have the world's highest proportion of college graduates by 2020.

Across the country, 51 percent of Hispanic students who start college complete a bachelor's degree in six years, compared with 59 percent of white students. That disparity holds true regardless of the ability of the students or the reputation of the colleges: Hispanic students graduate at lower rates than do white students with similar academic backgrounds across similarly ranked colleges, from the nation's least-selective institutions to its most-selective colleges and universities.

Even many colleges that qualify as Hispanic-serving institutions—a federal designation that makes them eligible for special funds from several agencies—are graduating less than half of their Hispanic students, the report says.

The authors of the report looked at graduation-rate data from the U.S. Department of Education at a variety of colleges. They grouped the institutions into six categories based on how selective they are in admitting students, ranging from "noncompetitive" to "most competitive," as defined by the popular guide Barron's Profiles of American Colleges.

When the researchers examined graduation rates among similarly selective colleges and universities, they found considerable variation from institution to institution in Hispanic students' performance. That finding indicates that while student background is important, institutional practices also play a role, said Andrew P. Kelly, one of the report's authors and a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

The data "show quite clearly that colleges and universities cannot place all of the blame on students for failing to graduate," Mr. Kelly said.

The report questions whether the United States can achieve the president's educational goal, given the overall low college completion rates of the growing Hispanic population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 37 percent of the 44 million Hispanic U.S. residents are under the age of 20, and by 2020, Hispanics will make up 22 percent of the nation's college-age population.

"These are the students who are going to replace the baby boomers, and who we will rely on to drive our economy over the next several decades," said Hilary Pennington, director of education, postsecondary success, and special initiatives at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.