Nonprofit Group Provides Road Map to Increase Hispanic Degree Attainment

March 09, 2011

Excelencia in Education released a sweeping policy road map on Wednesday explaining how it believes communities, colleges, states, and the federal government can increase Hispanic graduation rates—a key component of meeting the nation's college-completion goals.

The road map recommends that colleges focus their policy work on increasing retention for working students, growing early-college high schools and dual-enrollment programs, and guaranteeing need-based aid for qualified students.

With Hispanics poised to make up 20 percent of 18- to 64-year-olds by 2020, the road map says that work is crucial.

In addition to a host of policy recommendations, the road map includes a profile of Hispanic undergraduates that counters misperceptions; benchmarking data to track progress in meeting attainment goals; and examples of efforts that "move the needle" on Hispanic degree attainment.

For example, to increase student retention, the Universidad del Sagrado Corazón in Puerto Rico offers general-education courses online as a backup system for students in good academic standing with unexpected work-schedule changes during a semester.

The University of Texas at El Paso's Promise Plan covers all tuition and mandatory fees for students with family incomes of $30,000 or less who are Texas residents, complete 30 credits a year, and earn a grade-point average of 2.0 or higher.

'A Call to Action'

The road map is the culmination of more than a year's worth of work in which 60 organizations, including Jobs for the Future and Project Grad USA, joined Excelencia in its project, called Ensuring America's Future by Increasing Latino College Completion. The project is financially supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation for Education, and the Kresge Foundation.

"We want the road map to be a call to action," said Deborah A. Santiago, vice president for policy and research at Excelencia. "We need to make sure that Latinos are included in the college-completion dialogue."

President Obama has set an ambitious goal for the United States to become the top-ranked country in the world in college-degree attainment by 2020. To reach 51-percent college-degree attainment and become the world leader, projections show the United States will need 36 million degrees.

Hispanics will have to earn 5.5 million degrees to close the achievement gap and help the nation move toward that goal, according to Excelencia. Right now, Hispanic people represent about 15 percent of the population of the United States and 12 percent of undergraduate students in higher education.

Among the federal policy recommendations, the road map argues that the government should require appropriate training and materials for loan-default management and financial literacy. Better training and quality materials can help institutions improve their financial-aid strategies to better serve low-income students and provide them with the options they need to make effective aid choices, Excelencia officials said. Financial-literacy programs that focus on low-income students can help these students manage their financial-aid options.

A Clearer Picture of Students

Central to the road map is ensuring that policy makers have a clear understanding of who Hispanic students are. Excelencia officials contend that public perceptions of Hispanic students—and thus, the programs and policy efforts aimed at them—are often guided by a limited and inaccurate profile.

"We don't want policy work to be done on the margins," Ms. Santiago said.

For example, it is commonly assumed that the majority of Hispanics are immigrants, high-school dropouts, and English-language learners. In fact, the figures underscore a different picture, according to a 2009 Excelencia report that found that close to 90 percent of Hispanic students enrolled in primary and secondary school were born in the United States and that more than 80 percent of Hispanic school-age children spoke English with no difficulty.

Hispanic high-school graduation rates range from 21 percent to 40 percent, depending on the study. However, in 2008, Census data showed than 67 percent of Hispanics ages 18 to 24 had completed high school.

In September, Excelencia plans to release some early information on the progress of its project.