When you think about recent developments in American higher education, the negatives tend to predominate. Cutbacks in state funding, soaring tuition fees, ballooning debt levels – it all leads you to believe that there’s been an enormous diminution of access. But, very quietly, there’s been one incredibly good piece of news: a massive jump in Latino participation rates.
For decades, now, one of the biggest challenges in American higher education has been low participation rates among Latino students. Latinos are, of course, quite heterogenous, even with respect to higher education. Puerto Ricans in the Northeast have long had access rates similar to those of whites, while participation rates among Mexican and Central American Latinos in the West and Southwest have been persistently abysmal. Other immigrant groups with low-education backgrounds have tended to see their participation rates rise by the time the second generation rolls around. In many cases in the west, the Latino population was well into its third generation; it seemed, by-and-large, as if Latino youth simply hadn’t grasped the fact that higher education was increasingly necessary to succeed in the modern economy.
As Latino birthrates rose, and as that population became an increasing percentage of the general population, there were real worries in the Southwest that the persistently-low participation rates would lead to declining overall participation rates, and an increasingly de-skilled labour force. A lot of policy attention – and some money as well – got lavished on this population, through groups like Excelencia in Education.
Then suddenly, in the middle of this recession, the situation changed dramatically. Between 2008 and 2011, the participation rate of Latinos, aged 18-24 years-old, who had completed high school, jumped from 36% to 46%, surpassing the black participation rates for the first time ever. And no, this wasn’t a trick of the denominator – Latino high school completion rates were rising too, from 65% in 2005, to 76% in 2011. In 2010 alone, the country saw an increase of nearly 200,000 Latino enrolments from the previous year (to put that in perspective, that’s the equivalent of the population of Quebec’s francophone universities).
Maddeningly for policy wonks who want to replicate this little miracle, it’s really not clear what prompted it. There was no big policy shift that preceded it, for instance. Many say “it’s the recession”, but this begs a lot of questions (e.g. why this recession, and not earlier ones? Why isn’t it having a similar effect on black enrolments?).
Sometimes, if you work at something long enough, stuff just happens. That’s bad news for social scientists who like to link cause and effect, but good news for America’s Latinos.