Excelencia in Education Report Reveals Latino College Completion Strides and Struggles

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by Jamal E. Mazyck

Deborah Santiago, chief operating officer and vice president of policy at Excelencia, says the group is seeing “closure in the achievement gaps in some states but not all.”

Deborah Santiago, chief operating officer and vice president of policy at Excelencia, says the group is seeing “closure in the achievement gaps in some states but not all.”

WASHINGTON ― Despite California having the largest Latino population in the U.S., there are no California higher education institutions in the top five at the associate’s or bachelor’s level, according to a report delivered Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

Excelencia in Education, the data-driven organization that aims to advance the success of Latino students in higher education, also noted in its report “Latino College Completion: United States”  that Latinos will need to earn 5.5 million more degrees above current levels by 2020 in order for the U.S. to regain the top ranking in the world for college degree attainment. By reaching this goal, the organization said the U.S. can close the equity gap in college completion, increase the number of degrees awarded and scale up programs and initiatives that work for Latinos and other students.

The report indicates that the top five higher education institutions for Latino enrollment are Miami Dade College, South Texas College, El Paso Community College, East Los Angeles College and Florida International College.

“Four of the top five are predominantly community colleges,” said Deborah Santiago, chief operating officer and vice president of policy at Excelencia. “With Miami Dade at the top of the list enrolling almost 45,000 students with about 8,000 earning associate’s degrees, when thinking crudely, isn’t too bad but could be much better.”

While enrollment numbers for Latino students are relatively high, the degree attainment data in the report exposes a significant equity gap in college completion, most noticeably in California. In a state that is 30 percent Latino, only 16 percent that are 25 and older hold either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, as compared to the 20 percent rate nationally.

Santiago urged policymakers, asking, “Why there is significant representation at the enrollment level but not at the completion level? Why do we not see what we would assume based on population and the number of institutions?”

The highest-ranking institution for enrolled Latino students in California is East Los Angeles College, with just over 24,000 students. Of those 24,000, just over 1,000 are earning associate’s degrees. Therefore, if a community college is graduating 1,000 students, then they are No. 1 in the state. Texas and Florida fared better in the Latino enrollment versus completion rates of Latino students.

“We are seeing the closure in the achievement gaps in some states, but not all,” said Santiago. “The core critical issues to be considered are the first-generation population, retention challenges and enrollments versus completion numbers. The only way to get from enrollment to completion is through retention. Let’s use the data to compel action.”

Excelencia, in its 10th year of operation, produced its report by analyzing readily available data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and takes their findings a step further. What Census and IPED data lack, Excelencia fills in by identifying degree attainment numbers and breaks out data in terms of equity for Latinos in addition to enrollment data throughout the U.S. Excelencia also has data on part time and stop/restart students, which typically are not included in graduation rates.

Eric Felix, a higher education researcher and doctoral student at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, expressed thoughts on why enrollment does not always translate into completion.

“The report is a reminder that we have different perspectives on access and success,” said Felix, who regularly works on issues related to access and equity for underrepresented students. “Some are okay with leading Latinos to the gate of higher education, but then turn the lights off along the way and expect students to navigate on their own.

“Access and success should be measured by excellence, rather than providing access and letting students survive.”

The University of Phoenix also made the top five associate’s and bachelor’s degree attainment lists. And while some denounce the for-profit college model, Santiago qualified University of Phoenix’s contribution to the report by stating, “Latinos are receiving degrees from there in significant numbers relative to their enrollment and we are here to share the data, not denigrate students’ choices to go to a for-profit college.”

Jacob Fraire, vice president of student and institutional success at Texas Guaranteed (TG) Student Loan Corporation, said he found the report to be “troubling and exciting.” He underscored how significant the report is to Texas, which has the second largest Latino population in the U.S.

“Policymakers must not remain ignorant to these stark equity gaps,” Fraire said. “It reminds us that there is much work to do. Latino degree completion must be a part of the macro, national conversation.”

The Lumina Foundation, a 12-year-old private foundation that aims to increase the trajectory of Americans with high-quality degrees, certificates and other credentials to 60 percent by 2025, has been a longstanding partner with Excelencia.

Tina Gridiorn, Lumina’s senior strategy officer, also was on hand to respond to the report and remind attendees that “Latinos are a part of our national future. According to labor experts, by the year 2020 there will be 50 million new jobs in the U.S. that will require some form of postsecondary degree or credential.”

Jamal E. Mazyck can be reached at jmazyck@diverseeducation.com and on Twitter @jmbeyond7.

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