THE NUMBER of freshmen enrolled in US colleges jumped 6 percent in 2008, the highest spike of enrolled freshmen since the height of the Vietnam War. Then, young men were signing up for classes in droves to avoid the draft. Today, young people are choosing college to avoid a dismal job market and to better prepare themselves for work when the economy does pick up. Consider it a silver lining to the economic downturn: Even though young people are having trouble finding work now, in a few years one of the most highly educated generations will enter into the US workforce.
The numbers are particularly encouraging for Latino youth. Their freshman enrollment numbers jumped 15 percent in 2008, compared to 8 percent for blacks, 6 percent for Asians, and 3 percent for whites. Historically, Latinos have dramatically trailed their peers in high school completion and college enrollment rates. The trend began to reverse in 2007, when 70 percent of Hispanic high school students earned a diploma, an all-time high. Now, record rates of these high school graduates are immediately enrolling in college.
Experts believe the surge comes partly from population growth and partly from Latinos’ increased belief that higher education will help propel them into better-paying careers, especially during troubled economic times.
While this trend is certainly cause for celebration, it’s worth noting that college matriculation is vastly different than college completion. In fact, while Latinos are signing up for classes in record numbers, they still report grim graduation rates. Less than one-quarter of Latinos who start college leave with a bachelor’s degree and almost two-thirds receive no credential at all. Experts blame a number of factors. Latinos are less prepared for college than their peers, are almost twice as likely to have children or elderly dependents, are more likely than white students to be single parents, and are more likely to live at home, a factor that decreases social integration on campuses. But most significantly, Latinos typically enroll in schools that already tend to have lower completion rates.
The numbers released this month reflect this reality. While more white students are enrolling in more selective, four-year colleges, Latinos continue to sign up for classes at community colleges, two-year programs, and vocational schools with open-door policies. Until those schools do a better job of retaining their students, more young Latinos will end up with the worst of all worlds — with many of the costs associated with higher education but without the degree.