Record College Enrollment Doesn’t Mean Upward Mobility For Most Latinos

Despite record numbers in Latino college enrollment, experts say that we're a long way from closing the income gap.

By Jorge Rivas Nov 02, 2011

Latino college enrollment numbers have reached unprecedented levels across the United States. To be sure, it’s a huge gain. But now many experts worry that the rise in college enrollment for Latinos won’t necessarily lead to better jobs and higher incomes because many of these students aren’t earning four-year bachelor’s degrees.

Instead, many earn two-year associate’s degrees. Still a worthy achievement, but one that won’t necessarily lead to a surge in income down the road. According to recent data compiled by the Pew Hispanic Center, the number of Latinos age 18-24 attending college in the U.S. increased by 24 percent over a one-year period, from 2009 to 2010. But since that growth has been primarily at the community college level, education experts caution that it’s a small step in closing the gap in education and income equity in the U.S.

"Of all young Hispanics who were attending college last October, some 46% were at a two-year college and 54% were at a four-year college," the Pew study found. By contrast, among young white college students, 73% were enrolled in a four-year college, as were 78% of young Asian college students.

"Although Hispanic youths have narrowed the gap in college enrollment, Hispanic young adults continue to be the least educated major racial or ethnic group in terms of completion of a bachelor’s degree," the Pew study notes. In 2010, only 13 percent of Latinos 25-29 years old had completed bachelor’s degree, the report goes on to report.

New America Media’s Jacob Simas and Vivian Po wrote a story called "Latino College Enrollment Skyrockets, But Will Upward Mobility Follow?" that raises a few concerns about whether Latino students in two-year programs will be able to live better lives than their immigrant parents:

…But what looks like a positive trend on the surface — more Latinos going to college — could have unintended consequences down the line if other issues of equity are not addressed. The spike in Latino enrollees at community colleges, in tandem with budget cuts and higher fees at the state’s public universities, has Mehan [Hugh Mehan, a sociologist at UC San Diego] concerned that the academic gains being enjoyed now by young Latinos may not automatically translate into upward mobility or a better life than what their parents had.

"A two-year degree is an important step up, but it’s not the same as a four-year degree, which can open more (professional) doors for a student," said Mehan, who also suggests that failing to create more equity across all levels of higher education could well result in nothing less than the shattering of the American dream for a whole generation of youth born of immigrant families.

"The first-generation of immigrants have that enthusiasm and optimism, that carries into the next generation. But if those hopes and aspirations are not fulfilled, then the idea of working hard to get ahead in school diminishes."

Mehan believes the disproportionate number of Latinos going to community college is a byproduct of rising costs at four-year public universities.

The entry-level jobs that once offered a living wage to people with two-year degrees are no longer available because they’ve been sent offshore, Mehan says. So the challenge now is not just to get students to college, but to make sure they continue on and graduate from a four-year institution.