For those of us working to empower Latino families and help young people attain the American dream through higher education, there is cause to celebrate: The high school dropout rate among Latinos declined by about half between 2000 and 2012. More Latino high school graduates are going to college than ever before; 19 percent of all university students in the United States are Latinos.
While this surge of college-bound Latino students is encouraging, some troubling patterns persist. Latinos are less likely than non-Hispanic whites to attend a four-year university and to graduate from college.
Perhaps the most puzzling trend: According to a recent University of Southern California study, nearly half of the top 10 percent of Latino public high school graduates in California choose to attend a community college, even though they qualify for admission to a four-year university. Compare that to 27 percent of whites, 23 percent of African Americans and 19 percent of Asian Americans.
The organization I lead, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, has focused lately on this “under-matching” problem. I have a deep respect for California’s community colleges. But if a high school graduate is qualified for a University of California or California State University campus – and has the ability to pay for it, with or without financial aid – that option should not be ruled out.
Community colleges are an appropriate choice for some students, including those who eventually transfer to a UC or CSU campus to complete a bachelor’s degree. But we would like to see more of our highest-achieving Latino students go directly to a four-year institution.
Yet, if we help them apply to a UC or CSU campus, will these students have a seat available? And once they arrive, will they find the same level of quality that previous generations have enjoyed?
Unfortunately, we cannot answer either question with certainty.
What is certain is that, without funding for enrollment growth, students graduating from California high schools, including Latinos, will face more obstacles to attaining a college degree than past generations. And, without the funding necessary for top faculty and up-to-date technology and equipment, they will receive a lower-quality education.
The UC and CSU systems must make the most of available resources as they seek to expand access and preserve quality. But the state’s elected officials must do their part, too.
A first good-faith effort for the state would be for the Department of Finance to revise its projections for high school graduation rates, which it has consistently underestimated. Recent growth exceeds by more than 45,000 the numbers that the department projected in 2009. One reason is that projections of graduating Latinos are based on out-of-date assumptions.
A second step would be for legislative leaders to fund enrollment growth. And a third would be for Gov. Jerry Brown, UC President Janet Napolitano and legislative leaders to agree on a plan to ensure access and quality for all Californians who want to attend a California public university. We owe it to all of the bright students who have worked hard to reach their goals.
Fidel A. Vargas is president and CEO of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund.