I. Overview

In addition to longstanding concerns over high school completion, policymakers are increasingly focused on disparities in outcomes between Hispanic and white college students (President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans, 2003; Council of Economic Advisers, 2000; RAND, 2001). Young Hispanic undergraduates are half as likely as their white peers on campus to finish a bachelor’s degree, a disparity at least as large as the disparity in finishing high school. Many factors contribute to producing this disparity. This study focuses on one: changes in college enrollment patterns.

This report shows that although Hispanics continue to increase their sheer numbers in college, they are likely falling further behind whites in the pursuit of completing the bachelor’s degree. In several key states, white enrollment increases occurred exclusively at four-year colleges and universities. Hispanic enrollment gains occurred at both two-year and four-year colleges. As a result, increases in the number of Latinos pursuing post-secondary education have not produced a reduction in the four-year college enrollment gap between Latinos and whites. Relative to whites, a smaller share of Latinos are obtaining a college education at a four-year college or university, diminishing their likelihood of completing a bachelor’s degree. In effect, Hispanics are chasing a target that is accelerating ahead of them.

This study considers seven states with large Latino populations—California, New York, Arizona, New Jersey, Florida, Texas and Illinois—for the period between 1996 and 2001. About 80 percent of the nation’s Latino college students go to college in those states. According to a Pew Hispanic Center analysis of data compiled by the U.S. Department of Education, first-time, full-time Hispanic freshman enrollment increased in all seven of these states at rates ranging from 6 percent in New York to 53 percent in Florida. The growth of white enrollment at all post-secondary institutions (two-year as well as four-year) was considerably less robust and actually decreased slightly in California.

The shift of white freshman enrollment from two-year to four-year colleges was large enough to trigger an overall decline in two-year college freshman enrollment in four states. The decrease in white freshman enrollment at two-year colleges more than offset increases in the number of Hispanic freshmen entering those colleges. Freshman enrollment in two-year colleges was flat or declining in all states except Texas and Florida. In four key states the number of Hispanic youths beginning college in the lower tiers of post-secondary education significantly increased even as other youths were forgoing those institutions.

Enrollment changes between 1996 and 2001 suggest mixed progress for Latino youth. On the one hand, the proportion of Hispanics enrolling in four-year institutions was generally increasing. This should provide a boost to educational attainment as a greater share of all Latino college students complete a bachelor’s degree. However, in California, New York, New Jersey and Arizona, an even larger additional fraction of white youths enrolled in four-year colleges. Thus, the educational attainment of white youth is likely to receive a greater boost. In a relative sense, therefore, Latino youths are falling further behind their white counterparts in several key states.

Using the widely known Barron’s measure of admissions competitiveness, this report also analyzes the change in full-time freshman enrollment between 1996 and 2001 in selective and non-selective four-year colleges. The analysis finds that the proportion of Hispanic four-year freshmen attending more selective colleges was either flat or dropped in the selected states. But the proportion of white four-year freshmen at selective colleges also declined in tandem fashion. Thus, relative to whites, Latino youths did not lose ground in enrollment at the more selective college campuses.