Why Do Most Black and Latino Students Go to Two-Year Colleges?

A new initiative in east Los Angeles hopes to create a culture that will steer students to four-year schools.
Charlie Riedel/AP Photo

In Los Angeles, the announcement last week made for front-of-the-local-section news. Students at gang- and poverty-ridden East Los Angeles's Garfield High School who meet minimum requirements will now enjoy guaranteed admission to California State University (Los Angeles). The same initiative will also guarantee that students at East L.A. College, a nearby community college, can transfer to Cal State L.A., and the community college will expand its course offerings available to Garfield students.

The partnership between the Los Angeles Board of Education, leadership at Cal State L.A., and East L.A. College aims to create a college-going culture in a section of East Los Angeles where only a tiny share of the overwhelmingly Latino residents have college degrees. Research shows that giving minority high school students opportunities to spend time on college campuses and in classrooms, earn college credits while still in high school, and access mentors and internships—all additional features of the arrangement—makes them more likely to both enter college and graduate.

In the nearly five decades since the federal government began tracking minority college enrollment, college entrance patterns have taken on a new shape. The once-significant gaps between the share of black, white, and Latino students entering college have reached near equilibrium. (Asian students have long enrolled at a higher rate than the other groups.) In 2012, Latino students even slightly outpaced their black and white peers when it came to entering college. Still, a vast gulf remains in terms of who actually graduates with a degree.

The most recent federal data available depict the outcomes for students who enrolled full-time in 2005 and graduated by 2011. During that time, about 69 percent of Asian students earned undergraduate degrees, as did 58 percent of whites. But just 46 percent of Latino students and 45 percent of black students completed their undergraduate education.

"This is the kind of problem we simply can't ignore," says Susie Savedra, senior legislative director for health and education policy with the National Urban League. "If we can't get more students of all races and backgrounds all the way through college now, we will be facing a much broader crisis." 

Within just four years, the majority of Americans under the age of 18 will be people of color. The National Urban League released a report last week warning that schools and policymakers need a better understanding of the nation's black and Latino student populations if they want to boost graduation rates. The report focused on the lower-income black students, the group least likely to complete an undergraduate degree program. But its recommendations could and should be applied broadly to boost the national graduation rate, says Savendra.

During the 2011-2012 school year, about 62 percent of all black college students received Pell Grants, federal student aid reserved for the poorest students. Of these students, 65 percent were classified as independent, meaning they receive no financial support from their families. Independent African-American Pell Grant recipients were by far the most likely (48 percent) to also be single parents responsible for the care of often very young children. The same was true of 34 percent of Latino students, 23 percent of whites, and 19 percent of Asians.

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Janell Ross is a staff writer for the Next America project at National Journal

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