Posted on July 9, 2004

N.C. Colleges Prepare for Hispanic Boom

AP, Earthlink, Jul. 9

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — As the daughter of native Puerto Ricans, Arlene Rivera grew up in Fayetteville surrounded by just a handful of other Spanish speakers.

“I always wanted a Hispanic teacher growing up,” said Rivera, who was often the only Hispanic student in her classes. “I thought it would be the coolest thing.”

Now, the 20-year-old Rivera is scheduled to graduate from Fayetteville State University next year with a degree in elementary education, preparing her to be a role model to the booming number of Hispanic students crowding North Carolina schools.

In the 1990s, North Carolina’s Hispanic population quadrupled, growing at the highest rate of any state in the nation.

As Hispanic populations explode in the South and continue to grow in the West, colleges are working hard to recruit high school graduates.

“It’s going to keep us busy for many years to come,” said Robert Kanoy, associate vice president for access and outreach for the 16-campus University of North Carolina system. “You really have to be aware of the nuances.”

Based on current elementary enrollment numbers, officials estimate Hispanics will make up a third of North Carolina’s high school graduates by 2013.

“I’ve seen the big spurt,” said Rivera, whose father was among the many Hispanics who came to the area for assignments at Fort Bragg. “Now, you see a bunch of different names that are Hispanic.”

Similar changes are ahead for other Southern states that saw their Hispanic populations boom in the 1990s, including Arkansas (up 337 percent), Georgia (300 percent), Tennessee (278 percent), and South Carolina (211 percent).

In the West, Hispanic populations have deeper roots, so universities there have already dealt with language barriers, said David Longanecker, executive director of the Boulder, Colo.-based Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

Even so, states throughout the region are preparing for huge growth in the number of Hispanic students during the next decade. Arizona expects the number of high school students to rise 65 percent, with nearly all the increase coming from the Hispanic population. Nevada expects a doubling of its high school population, again driven by Hispanic students.

Nationally, Longanecker’s group projects that by 2008, Hispanics will account for 21 percent of the country’s public high school graduates, up from 17 percent in 2002.

Longanecker said many colleges and universities need to make subtle changes to make Hispanic students feel more welcome.

“Our college campuses in many cases are simply not very conducive to students from different cultures,” he said.

A study released last month by the Pew Hispanic Center found that even though Hispanic high school graduates are seeking higher education at the same rate as comparable whites, they are only half as likely as whites to earn a bachelor’s degree.

The study said that is because a disproportionate number of Hispanic students end up at less-selective, “open-door” schools that tend to have lower graduation rates.

In North Carolina, Hispanics account for just 1.7 percent of the 183,000 students at the North Carolina’s public universities. But they are the fastest-growing segment of the student body.

At Fayetteville State, a historically black university with about 5,300 students, the number of Hispanics grew 30 percent between 1998 and 2003. About 4 percent of current students are Hispanic, the highest percentage at any state institution.

At a time when universities compete vigorously for students, Fayetteville State seeks to better understand and target Hispanics.

The school has hired a bilingual counselor to help recruit students from Spanish-speaking families, it translates basic documents into Spanish and advertises in a national college guide for Hispanics. Recruiters hold receptions for Hispanic families and are partnering with Hispanic community groups to extend their reach.

“We’ve got to serve that population if we’re going to meet our enrollment goals,” said associate vice chancellor Jon Young. “We’re trying to look at ways we can be more approachable.”

Even if Hispanics are made to feel welcome, there are still barriers — such as immigration status — that can keep them off public campuses.

As many as 1,450 illegal immigrants graduated from North Carolina high schools this spring, according to an estimate from El Pueblo, a Raleigh-based Hispanic advocacy group. The Urban Institute based in Washington, D.C., estimates 65,000 such graduates nationwide.

But public universities in North Carolina and many other states don’t accept applications from illegal immigrants and don’t offer them financial aid.

Federal lawmakers are debating a bill that would grant residency to undocumented students, qualifying them for in-state tuition. A Senate committee has endorsed the idea.