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Education Study Finds Hispanics Both Gaining and Lagging

From the New York Times
By Diana Jean Schemo

A new report concludes that Hispanic high school graduates enroll in college at a higher rate than non-Hispanic whites, at least by some measures, but are far less likely to earn a four-year degree, which has long been regarded as the single most important key to good jobs and high earnings.

The report, released here today by the Pew Hispanic Center, suggests that Latinos are held back by financial and other pressures, not a lack of interest in higher education. Many are older when they enroll and are more likely to attend community colleges rather than four-year institutions, take a partial course load and work to contribute to their families' incomes.

The findings contradict what has been a belief among policy makers that Latinos do not graduate from colleges and universities because they do not enroll. The problem has been seen as one of poor academic preparation of vast numbers of Latinos, from kindergarten through 12th grade, and thus one that could take a generation or more to remedy.

The report's author, Richard Fry, senior research associate at the Pew center, said poor preparation in high school and before remained an impediment to success in college and was one reason, unrelated to finances, for Latinos' attending community colleges, which typically offer remedial courses.

But, Mr. Fry said, the figures nevertheless suggest an opportunity for policy makers.

Addressing that theme, Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, said Latinos who enroll in college were "the low-hanging fruit" that policy makers could focus on, with more financial aid and other incentives, to improve college graduation rates quickly.

"They're already on campuses and enrolled," Mr. Suro said, "and the problems that are keeping them from graduating are not overwhelming."

Earlier studies by the Education Department have shown that Latinos receive less grant aid than other minorities or whites, and that they feel less comfortable borrowing the large sums needed to attend most universities. A report in March by the Higher Education Public Interest Research Group said that on average, students now graduated from college owing roughly $17,000 in student loans and more than $3,000 in credit card debt.

Those sums can seem enormous to somebody whose parents may be struggling to pay the rent, said Sarita Brown, director of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, based in Washington.

"The reality for many of us," Ms. Brown said, "is that when we come from modest means, you can hear that 30, 40, 50 thousand dollars of loan debt is a viable way to begin a career, but that's a hard leap to make. So the preference among many of us is to live within our means."

Through analysis of census data from 1997 to 2000, the report found that 10 percent of the nation's total population of Latino high school graduates were then enrolled in college, compared with 7 percent of all white non-Hispanic high school graduates.

But the people most likely to attain four-year degrees are those who enter college from age 18 to 24, and the study found that among Latino high school graduates in that age group, only 35 percent were enrolled in college, compared with 46 percent of non-Hispanic white graduates 18 to 24.

Latino college students, moreover, were far more likely than their counterparts among non-Hispanic whites to be enrolled in community colleges. Among 18-to-24-year-olds, for instance, 44 percent of Latino collegians were in two-year programs, compared with 30 percent of white collegians.

Ricardo R. FernŠŠndez, president of Lehman College in New York City, said many students attended community colleges with no intention of getting a degree, only to obtain a certificate or vocational training. And the report noted that regardless of ethnic group, a majority of students who enroll in community colleges never receive even a two-year degree.

The report said that by the end of their 20's, 37 percent of white high school graduates and 21 percent of black graduates had received a four-year degree, as against only 16 percent of Latino graduates.

Over the next 25 years, the report said, the white working-age population will shrink by five million as baby boomers retire, while the Latino working-age population swells by 18 million. Those numbers make improved education of Latinos vitally important for the nation's work force, Mr. Fry said.