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Latino College Enrollment Hits Record High -- But Will It Continue?

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Back in 1987 the film Stand and Deliver told the inspiring story of Jamie Escalante, a Mexican immigrant who gave up his engineering job to teach AP Calculus to Latino kids in an underperforming East L.A. high-school. The story shed light on a Latino educational crisis fueled by socioeconomic obstacles as well as low expectations for Latino students from various quarters, especially the educational establishment. The story, however, was also one of triumph over adversity, with teacher dedication and community involvement fueling the success of most of Escalante's class in passing the AP exam.

Twenty-five years later the spirit of Escalante thrives as the number of Latinos enrolled in either two or four-year colleges has hit a record high. And while more work needs to be done, this development is encouraging as education is critical for the prosperity of both Latinos and our country. Simply put, we will be increasingly less competitive if Latinos don't become more educated.

The promising picture regarding Latino educational progress comes from a Pew Research Center study based on the analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data from 2009 to 2010. According to the report, college-age Hispanics account for 15% of the overall college enrollment numbers, close to the national population percentage of 16%. These numbers represent a 349,000 increase year-on-year for Hispanic college students, compared with an increase of 88,000 for blacks, 43,000 for Asians, and a decrease of 320,000 for whites. The decrease for whites reflects the smaller white youth population.

The story behind the Latino college success is a byproduct of both demographics and educational achievement. Latino youths have grown exponentially during the last couple of years, with most of the growth of the U.S. Hispanic population coming from those born in the U.S. But population growth alone cannot account for the Latino college numbers. Behind this growth has been a steady and powerful increase in the number of Latinos graduating from high school and entering college. The number of Latinos graduating from high school has shot up to 73% from 70% from 2009 to 2010.

A critical element to the success of Latinos in college has been the enrollment in two-year community colleges. Almost half of all Latino college students are at two-year colleges versus whites, 70% of which are enrolled at four-year colleges. One of the main reasons for this skew is the greater affordability for Hispanics of two-year colleges during an economic slowdown that has hit them harder as a group.

Other elements contributing to more Latinos in college include the greater growth of U.S. born Hispanics that benefit from an American educational system earlier in life and with less English language barriers, the persistent Latino parental focus on education as the base for the American dream, and Hispanic NGOs and media programs focusing on keeping Latino kids in school. Also critical to this progress has been a stronger Latino political voice demanding better educational options for its young.

While the Pew numbers are encouraging, the overall picture is still of a community struggling. Latinos are less likely to finish college than their white counterparts. Continued progress is also challenged by a moribund economy that makes a college investment a bigger task for families and students alike. The situation is especially tough at the state level where deficits and unbalanced budgets threaten the sustainable funding of the two-year community colleges that have driven Latino enrollment in college.

Given the challenges mentioned above, the Latino college boom should not be taken for granted. Civic leaders need to continue pushing the agenda for greater educational investment in the Latino community at all levels, including the funding for community colleges. And while this will undoubtedly be a more difficult task in this economy, the Latino community should draw strength in its electoral might during this election and going forward. Our strategy should be loud and clear, communicating that without significant Latino educational progress, we will all receive a failing grade.