by Albert Cortez, Ph.D.
The perceived value of access to education has changed as the needs of our country’s economy have evolved. This article explores this progression along with what is needed if we are to achieve the ambitious new goals that have been set before the country.
The Evolution of Educational Expectations
In the early days of the republic, education was not seen as essential quality for most of the population, with a few prosperous landed gentry entrusted to provide the leadership in all areas of American political, economic and social spheres. Though some form of literacy was seen as important for the creation of an informed electorate, even this basic skill was not afforded to all groups in the United States, with African Americans actually being prohibited in some regions from learning to read and write.
As the country moved from an agrarian economy to one based on industry and manufacturing, people began to encourage citizens to obtain at least an elementary education. Over time, job skill requirements involved ever-increasing levels of literacy, and the needs increased to completion of at least a high school education. The post-World War II era and its accompanying G.I. bill provided hundreds of thousands of returning veterans who had finished high school to, for the first time, enroll in and graduate from college. Evolving work skill demands had also expanded the need for a larger pool of applicants with a post-high school education.
In more recent years, spurred by an economic sector that now considers some post-high school educational preparation as a pre-requisite to entry into the contemporary job market, more and more states have increased standards to encourage high school students to graduate “college ready,” meaning sufficiently prepared to enroll in some post-secondary institution to enable them a further honing of job and/or career skills.
Concern about More Equitable Access
A commensurate concern emerged, born of egalitarian social movements that peaked in the 1960s and 70s, that such access should be available equitably to all students without regard to race, ethnicity or economic background. The importance of such goals is reflected in a newly-completed report funded by Houston Endowment Inc., which boldly asserts: “The opportunity of a rewarding future largely depends upon completing a certificate or degree following high school. National employment and earnings statistics bear this out” (NCHEMS, 2012). In this ground-breaking document, the authors propose a new measure of combined kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) to post-secondary education accountability based on the percentage of eighth grade students who go on to complete a post-high school one or two-year certificate or a two-year associate degree. (NCHEMS, 2012)
This new standard is below that advocated by others who call for completion of a four-year college degree for varying percentages of the U.S. population. Proponents of the four-year degree standard offer evidence that the United States has lagged behind other countries in the number of college educated citizens, putting it at a distinct disadvantage in markets that are increasingly subject to global competition. Whether advocating for a two-year or a four-year post-secondary credential, it is clear that K-12 and post-secondary education institution are far from achieving the desired outcomes.
Trends in Post-Secondary Enrollment
Given historical demographics, White students have long constituted the majority of college enrollment in states around the country. Even in states with sizable minority populations, minority student enrollment in post-secondary education has lagged behind that of White students. As the nation’s demographics have changed, however, we see a trend where Hispanic populations have increased by significant numbers, from 35.3 million in 2000 to 50.7 million in 2010, an increase of 43 percent in a single decade. By comparison, the White population also increased, but at notably lower rates, from 194.5 million to 196.9 million (or 1.2 percent), reflecting the lower birthrates of that population. The population of Blacks increased in the last decade from 33.7 million to 37.9 million, an increase of 12.5 percent. (Motel, 2012)
The sizable growth in the Hispanic population is particularly noteworthy because it has not occurred in states where Hispanics have been historically concentrated (California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois), but has instead reflected significant growth where they are new arrivals, including Nebraska where the Hispanic population increased by 129 percent from 2000 to 2010; South Carolina by 112.9 percent; Connecticut by 105.2 percent; and Oklahoma by 144.9 percent. (Patten, 2012).
With changing demographics, one would expect to see some improvement in the numbers of minority, and particularly Hispanic, students enrolling in higher education. According to recent research examining this issue, there is some good news. Richard Frey of the Pew Hispanic Center found that Hispanic students and Black students did reflect a notable increase in the number and percentages of students enrolling in post-secondary education (Frey, 2011). According the Frey, the growth in Hispanic student college enrollment reflects a “surge” that exceeded the growth in the group’s overall population. The number of Hispanic 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in college increased by 349,000 students, Black student enrollment increased by 88,000 students, while White enrollment decreased by 320,000 from 1997 to 2009. Population growth accounts for some of the improvement, but the overall college enrollment gains for Hispanics outstrip those population trends. (Frey, 2011)
Encouraging as these new data may be, the gaps in the post-secondary enrollment and completion levels among different groups also has been found to have persisted. According to Pew, Asian students continue to far out-pace all ethnic groups with a 62.2 percent college enrollment rate among 18- to 24-year-olds. White student enrollment is at 38 percent. And Hispanic students – the fastest growing population in the country – coming in at 31.9 percent.
Despite improvements in college enrollment, we continue to see vast differences in the number and percentage of minority college graduates compared with their White counterparts. Of individuals between the ages of 25 to 29, only 13 percent of Hispanics had a college degree (20 percent among native born Hispanics). This compares to 39 percent of White and 19 percent of Black young adults who have completed a four-year college degree. (Frey, 2011)
Changing Realities – Changing Policies
Whatever the short-term struggles, changing population trends suggest that the face of higher education in most states will be very different in future decades from what it is at present. If colleges and universities are to reflect what is a much more diverse population it will be imperative for all interested parties to adjust their efforts to adapt to new students. At the K-12 level, this means that the historic under-achievement of Hispanic students and Black students can no longer be accepted, and schools must step up efforts to improve academic preparation and graduation rates for all students, especially historically under-served minorities.
At the post-secondary levels, institutions of higher education will need to adapt their recruitment, student support services, overall graduation rates – especially minority student graduation rates – if they hope to reflect the increasing diversity of the U.S population. Failing this, they will become institutions that will serve as one pundit framed it “the old America” in a nation whose workforce, voters and taxpayers will reflect the new one.
As noted by IDRA’s president in a recent address quoting Martin Luther King: “We are all ‘caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny’” (Robledo Montecel, 2003).
Steve Murdoch, the Texas state demographer, and one-time head of the U.S. Bureau of the Census, and his colleagues had written that, given demographic trends, states like Texas had a window of opportunity to address the challenges created by a changing population. They warned that if current education trends were not altered in ways that improved the graduation and college-going rates of minorities, the state would be less educated and less economically viable by the year 2030 (Murdoch, et al., 2003). In the last decade, we have seen some improvement, but at a pace that will create major problems for all populations, in all states around the country.
Frey, R. Hispanic College Enrollment Spikes, Narrowing Gaps with Other Groups (Washington, D.C.: Pew Hispanic Center, August 25, 2011).
Motel, S. Statistical Portrait of Hispanics in the United States, 2010 (Washington, D.C.: Pew Hispanic Center, February 21, 2012).
Murdock, S.H., & S. White, N. Hoque, B. Pecotte, X. You, J. Balkan. The New Texas Challenge: Population Change and the Future of Texas (College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 2003).
National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. A New Measure of Educational Success in Texas – Tracking the Success of 8th Graders into and through College (Houston, Texas: Houston Endowment Inc., February 2012).
Patten, E. Statistical Portrait of the Foreign-Born Population in the United States, 2010 (Washington, D.C.: Pew Hispanic Center, February 21, 2012).
Robledo Montecel, M. “The Latino Pursuit for Excellence and Equity in U.S. Public Schools: Mendez (1946) and Brown (1954) – Today and Beyond,” opening remarks (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, October 10, 2003).
Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is director of policy at IDRA. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at
[©2012, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 2012 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please fill out our information request and feedback form. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]