Mass. colleges lead the way in attracting Latino students

June 10, 2012

The Boston Globe

The first adjective one might use to describe Amherst College is "bucolic,'' or maybe "prestigious.'' Chances are "diverse'' doesn't even crack the top 25. But a decade ago, the school's "top echelons made an outright decision that it would no longer be a bastion of the white, wealthy elite,'' says Ilan Stavans, a professor of Latin American and Latino Culture there who has mentored many Latino students. Amherst has since doubled its Latino enrollment from about 6 percent to 12. In 2010, praising its commitment, Hispanic Magazine named it the number five school in the country for Latinos.

Amherst's results are the envy of many colleges, and not just for ideological reasons. Recruiting minorities can be a survival strategy for small schools, especially those in the Northeast, which are staring down a demographic barrel: The region's teenage population is shrinking. Most colleges depend on tuition for revenue, so keeping enrollment steady is paramount. But for the next few years, there will be an unusually shallow pool of potential students. To maintain their numbers, schools will have to recruit high-schoolers who might not otherwise attend college - and that will mean, among other things, reaching out to minority and low-income groups.

While Amherst, with its $1.6 billion endowment, has plenty of money to devote to recruitment and scholarships, there are other ways to boost minority enrollment, and Massachusetts is ahead of the curve. The Commonwealth is one of the top 15 states enrolling Latinos, and according to a national report released in April, it saw one of the largest jumps in degrees conferred to Latinos over a three-academic-year period, from 2005 -06 to 2007-08. The report from Excelencia, a group that studies trends in higher education that affect Latinos, lists a number of strategies that are proven to work, and the local colleges that have such programs in place are getting results - fast.

The federal government would like to see statistics like Amherst's replicated nationwide. President Obama is keen to have the country double its number of college graduates by 2020 so it can regain its worldwide top ranking for college degree attainment. To make that happen, Latinos alone will need to earn 5.5 million degrees by 2020, according to the April Excelencia report. "It's a very big priority,'' says Eduardo Ochoa, the government's assistant secretary for postsecondary education. "Given the demographic shifts that are baked into our population, we are going to have to substantially increase the numbers.''

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