How Can Colleges Close the Latino Graduation Gap?

Diversity and Equity

How Can Colleges Close the Latino Graduation Gap?

By Nadia Tamez-Robledo     Oct 17, 2023

How Can Colleges Close the Latino Graduation Gap?

This article is part of the guide: Data Bytes: Parsing Education Data Into Snack-Sized Servings.

If colleges and universities want to close the graduation gap for their Latino students, their target goal is clear: help another 6.2 million Latinos earn a degree by 2030.

That’s according to the think tank Excelencia in Education, which focuses on research and policy on Latino achievement in higher education.

Its analysis on the 2021 college graduation rates of Latinos highlights some dismal statistics. Compared to their white, non-Hispanic counterparts, Latinos generally graduate from college at lower rates and drop out at higher rates. That’s even as the number of Hispanic students pursuing higher education has increased over the past 15 years.

Latino and white students enroll in higher education at roughly the same rates — 21 percent for Latinos and 23 percent for white students, according to the analysis.

The gaps become evident when looking at who graduates.


At four-year institutions, 52 percent of Latino students graduated while 65 percent of their white peers graduated — a 13-point difference.

Two-year institution graduation rates showed a five-point difference, with 33 percent of Latino students graduating compared to 38 percent of their white classmates.

Even among states with the highest K-12 Latino student populations — states that have the highest pools of potential Latino college students — Hispanic college graduation rates still lag behind their white counterparts.

There are a lot of reasons Latino students might not complete their degrees, says Emily Labandera, director of research at Excelencia in Education. Reverberations from the pandemic, for one, which led to lower college enrollment across the board.


But affordability is another factor that’s been a roadblock for Hispanic students, she adds, and federal financial aid like the Pell Grant has not kept up with rising college costs.

“We gather data year-to-year that [shows] Latinos are very pragmatic in the choices they make when they go to college,” Labandera says. “It's also a reason why they work while they're enrolled. They're trying to not just make college affordable, but also make ends meet and support their families, which is a key value within our community.”

The lower graduation rates also lead to another troubling finding of the data: Latino students are more likely to start but not complete their degrees.

At the national level, based on the analysis of federal data, nearly one-third of Hispanic students at four-year universities were no longer enrolled in college after six years. That figure was even higher for Hispanic students at two-year universities, where 45 percent were no longer enrolled after three years. White students had higher rates of continued enrollment.

EdSurge has covered the far-reaching consequences that dropping out or stopping out — the temporary version of dropping out — can have for students who don’t complete their degrees. That includes the burden of student debt for a credential they don’t have or difficulty re-enrolling years later.


While this data is not exactly positive, Labandera says a bright spot is that it reveals that opportunities exist for higher education institutions to reach out and support students who started but haven’t finished their degrees.

“The higher education system was created for a more traditional student that finishes an associate degree in two years and or a bachelor's degree in four, that goes full-time, that starts right after high school,” Labandera explains. “Increasingly our Latino community doesn't really look like [that]. That's why we use that term ‘post-traditional’ and specifically don’t say ‘non-traditional’ — because it has a bit more of a negative connotation, or it makes Latinos and students like them kind of the ‘other,’ and we sort of flip that narrative.”

Colleges and universities that work with Exelencia in Education to earn the organization’s Seal of Excelencia — meaning the institution has shown via data that it’s a place where Latino students are supported — are changing their campus cultures to be more flexible to students’ needs, Labandera says. For example, some are covering the cost of students’ basic needs like health care or housing in addition to tuition and fees.

“That's how these institutions are learning to look at it as, ‘These students already come to our campuses with assets with skill sets. We need to meet them where they are,’” Labandera says. “Not asking students to change who they are, to fit a mold, but rather, ‘How can, as the institution, we serve you holistically?’”

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