'Portrait' of Latino Freshmen

A new report tracking changes among Latino college freshmen over more than 30 years is striking, in part, for all that’s stayed more or less the same.

October 16, 2008

A new report tracking changes among Latino college freshmen over more than 30 years is striking, in part, for all that’s stayed more or less the same.

“While changes were evident across the decades, the stability of several patterns is remarkable for such a large and growing student population, suggesting the need for systemic changes to deal with perennial issues," states the report by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. "For example, while Latina/os now come from more educated families than they did in the 1970s, they remain the group with the lowest levels of parental education at four-year institutions. Scholars have noted that students with college-educated parents have greater access to family and social networks which can serve them well in maneuvering high school preparation and the college-going process.”

Building on that point, the proportion of first-generation Latino college students -- those students for whom neither parent has education beyond high school -- dropped from 69.6 percent in 1971 (when the proportion was 37.3 percent for non-Hispanic whites), to 38.2 percent in 2005 (compared to 13.2 percent for white students). Latinos “are just barely catching up to where non-Hispanics were in the 1970s, which is really scary,” said Sylvia Hurtado, professor and director of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute and a co-author of the report, “Advancing in Higher Education: A Portrait of Latina/o College Freshmen at Four-Year Institutions, 1975-2006.”

“That means yes, everyone has seen some progress, but we’re still in last place and we’re running in place.”

On the other hand, one area where there has been significant -- and, as the researchers describe it, "alarming" -- movement is in the decline of Latino males’ college participation compared to Latina females. "Latino males went from overrepresentation in the 1970s to severe underrepresentation relative to females in four-year colleges," states the report, which is based on data from 261,737 Latino respondents to the Cooperative Institutional Research Program Freshman Survey.

The proportion of Latino males compared to Latina females entering four-year colleges fell from 57.4 percent in 1975 to 39.2 percent in 2006, with the relative decline of males being especially large among Mexican American/Chicano students. The report notes that at various critical points of the pre-college educational pipeline, Latino males are losing ground (for example, in 2004, 28.4 percent of Latino males aged 16 to 24 were high school dropouts, compared to 18.5 percent of Latina females).

A gender gap among black college students gets a lot of attention these days, as does the shrinking proportion of men in higher education more generally. “For Latino males, it has not yet received the type of national attention you would think,” said Victor Sáenz, an assistant professor of higher education administration at the University of Texas at Austin and a co-author of the report. "Sometimes it’s difficult for folks to want to have this discussion about gender inequity because it has traditionally been framed in a very different way, in terms of women not being granted full access to educational opportunity.”

Other findings of the report can be viewed through the prism of the researchers' conclusions on income. An analysis finds that the median household income for Latino students entering four-year institutions was 62 percent of that of white families' in 2006, a slight narrowing of the gap from a 57 percent ratio in 1975. However, in raw dollars, the median household income gap between Latino and white students' families grew fourfold in that time -- from about $8,000 in 1975 to about $33,000 in 2006.

“That whole economic pattern really gave us much better insight into how much these financial factors were weighing in students’ decisions” about whether and where to go to college, said Hurtado.

“The income differential is still stubbornly large,” added José Luis Santos, a co-author and assistant professor of higher education at UCLA, in explaining, for example, that financial considerations probably play a role in why Latino students are less likely to attend their first-choice institution. In 2006, 60.7 percent of Latinos said they were attending their first-choice institution, compared to 72.6 percent of white students.

“What is it that’s driving them away from their first choice? We believe it’s cost," Santos said.

The report states that Latino students "were 2.4 times more likely than non-Hispanic whites to express a major concern about financing college in 2006.... Not surprisingly, an offer of financial assistance was among the top reasons for Latina/os at both Hispanic-serving institutions and predominantly white institutions in selecting their college."

Among the report’s other conclusions, the researchers determine that Latino students at four-year colleges tend to have applied to more colleges than white students did, and that Latino students are more likely than their white peers to report spending six or more hours per week studying or doing homework while in high school.

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