Blog: Latino Ed Beat

Hispanic, Latino, Latinx: How to Cover the Fastest-Growing Student Group

Hispanic students, who make up the second largest racial demographic in schools today, are entering college in record numbers. But they are also dropping out of college at a far higher rate than white students. That reality has important implications for our educational and economic systems and the reporters who cover them, according to a group of researchers and experts gathered at the 2018 Education Writers Association National Seminar.

Hispanic student educational success “is not just a Southwest issue,” said Luis Maldonado, chief advocacy officer with the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. More than 3,313 school districts – spread across 47 states – have student populations that are at least 25 percent Hispanic, he said. “This is a middle of America issue,” Maldonado said. “Our future labor force development will depend on Hispanics.”

The percentage of Hispanic 18-24 year-olds enrolled in college soared from about 22% in 2000 to almost 37% today, according to statistics published by the U.S. Department of Education.

That massive increase in college enrollment has almost eliminated the college enrollment gap between Hispanic and white students

But six years after starting college, 35 percent of Hispanic students have dropped out without earning a credential, compared with just 27 percent of white students, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

That so-called “achievement gap” has profound long-term economic implications, since most of the advantages in the job market go to college graduates. “College access means nothing if the students are leaving without a degree,” said Michele Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity.

“The implications for students not graduating and student debt is huge,” she said. “When you are mired in debt and don’t have a degree, that is a serious situation,” said Zoe Corwin, a higher education researcher at the University of Southern California.

The experts suggested the following four strategies for reporters interested in covering educational realities facing Hispanic students.

Are the students you’re writing about Hispanic? Latino? Latinx?

It is important for journalists to understand that the subgroup is made up of people from many different countries and many different economic backgrounds – ranging from physicians escaping from communism in Cuba to indigenous farmers fleeing drug violence in Central America. Choosing the correct words to describe them is key.

Latinos, or those from Latin America, encompass a group from South America, Mexico, Central America, and the islands of the Caribbean. Latinos speak a variety of languages, though Spanish is dominant.

Hispanics are those from Spanish-speaking countries. Many governmental databases, such as the Department of Education’s analyses of students by ethnicity, use the term “Hispanic.”

While the Associated Press Stylebook approves using the words “Hispanic” or “Latino,” a growing number of academics and advocates are using the word “Latinx” as a gender-neutral alternative.

“A lot of times we categorize Latinx students into one category, which is quite dangerous and unhelpful,” said USC’s Corwin.

Dig into the reasons for the achievement gap

Some Latino or Hispanic students come from families where no one else has attended college, and thus don’t have a trusted relative who can assist them through negotiate the often convoluted admissions and financial aid processes.

Many Latino or Hispanic students are stymied by other systemic barriers, said Marcos Montes, an undocumented student attending the California State University, Los Angeles who is also a member of of the student government. As an undocumented Latinx student, he wanted a college that was close to his family. But his choices were further limited by “systemic barriers,” Montes said. “There were not enough counselors,” for example, to help him find a good, affordable college. Latinx students also don’t always have access to AP and ACT preparation courses, which can make the academic progression to college more difficult, he said.

Affordability also plays a role. “Many Latinx students don’t have a safety net,” so one unexpected expense can force students to stop out.

A lack of diversity at colleges can also discourage students, Siqueiros said.

“The greatest indicators of college success are if Latinx students, and students of color, have mentors and supporters,” she explained.

Highlight improvements

One way to push a story forward with a fresh angle is to focus on efforts to increase the completion rates of Latino students, the panelists said.

Hispanic-serving institutions, which specialize in serving Latino students, are a good place for journalists to look for examples of how best to meet the needs of those students, said Andrés Castro Samayoa, an associate professor at Boston College.

He said several Hispanic-serving institutions have begun to engage entire families – not just individual students – as a part of the college application process. Bringing parents and siblings to campus, and creating multi-lingual pamphlets and applications “can go a long way to increasing the belonging students feel at a college campus,” he said.

And Ninfa Murillo, manager of the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation Dell Scholars Program, said a growing number of organizations are increasing student success by pairing financial aid with lots of advising sparked by data mining. Dell Scholars Program counselors check in with students frequently, and get alerted if the students show signs of trouble such as by missing classes or getting poor grades.

“For our model in particular, providing financial support is important,  but the addition of data-informed support,” has significantly improved student success, she said.

Mine the free data

There is a wealth of data sources to help journalists understand Latino student trends, panelists said.

College graduation rates by ethnic group and gender:  Collegeresults.org, a site created by the Education Trust think tank, gives breakdowns of college graduation rates over four, five and six years for almost every four-year college or university in the country. It also allows you to compare colleges against competitors with similar student bodies and admissions standards.

DACA: The Migration Policy Institute has data on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival recipient students.

Student debt and alumni earnings: Sara Garcia, a Center for American Progress policy analyst, recommends also taking a look at the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, which provides data on the employment status and paycheck size of former students who received federal financial aid. It also provides data on how well each school’s alumni are paying off their student loans.  

Overall: Wil Del Pilar, Education Trust vice president for higher education policy and practice, said his organization has gathered several free and trustworthy data resources to help journalists.

Castro Samayoa also said the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania can create specialized datasets for journalists upon request. To request a dataset, email Castro Samayoa at andresca (at) gse.upenn.edu.