Las Vegas Sun

October 13, 2015

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As Hispanic college enrollment steadily climbs, local colleges prepare

Several campuses close to benchmarks needed to apply for federal grants

Over the past four decades, the Hispanic portion of U.S. college enrollment has steadily increased, and for the first time ever, Hispanics are the largest minority group on college campuses, a new report indicates.

In Southern Nevada, institutions are executing plans to boost Hispanic enrollment and increase support services for minority students. Not only are the initiatives important to address the shifting demographics of Nevada’s schools, but they also could lead to one or more of the local colleges receiving federal Hispanic Serving Institution status, which can open doors to more funding.

According to a Pew Research Center report released in August, the number of 18- to 24-year-old Hispanics enrolled in college in the United States exceeded 2 million and reached a record 16.5 percent of all U.S. college enrollments in 2011. In 1972, the Hispanic share of U.S. college enrollments was 2.9 percent.

Hispanics now make up a quarter of all students enrolled in two-year U.S. colleges and are a fourth of the country’s public elementary school population.

In Nevada, the Hispanic portion of the population and Hispanic student enrollment are even greater than the average across the country. In the Clark County School District, Hispanics comprise 42 percent of the student body. For K-6, they make up more than half of the students.

“You can’t have a conversation on Nevada’s graduation rates and getting more students to pursue college degrees without having a specific conversation about what we are doing to serve Latino students,” said Jose Melendrez, UNLV assistant vice president of diversity initiatives, who added that the educational success of the state’s Hispanic students was vital to the future of the local economy.

Yet, to this point, not a single Nevada institution has achieved Hispanic Serving Institution status. The federal status requires two consecutive years of Hispanic enrollment constituting 25 percent of the student population, among other criteria.

College of Southern Nevada, the largest school in the Nevada System of Higher Education, came close a few years back to meeting the enrollment threshold, but then the recession reversed some of the gains.

“Budget cuts affected our progress,” CSN President Michael Richards said. “The recession hurt enrollment, and the cuts affected recruiting, marketing, scholarships and financial aid.”

Preliminary data show CSN’s current Hispanic enrollment at 24 percent of the student population, and Richards said he would like this to be the first school year in which CSN meets the 25 percent benchmark.

“Until late 2010, we were letting the demographics push change in our enrollment,” Richards said. “Beginning in late 2011, we changed that strategy and moved toward some very deliberate things.”

CSN put together a plan to better market the school to Hispanic students and their families and to increase awareness and opportunities for scholarships and financial aid. It also became more active in community outreach and diversity workshops, Richards said.

At UNLV, the percentage of Hispanic students has been steadily increasing and sits at 19 percent. Nevada State College is making a push for Hispanic Serving Institution status, as well, and currently has a student population that is about 20 percent Hispanic. All three institutions are considered emerging Hispanic Serving Institutions, which opens the opportunity to apply for some federal grants.

“We can’t afford to leave money on the table,” Melendrez said. “The money we can apply for as an emerging institution can help build the infrastructure to get full status. And once we receive those grants, they will help the whole student body because the money can be distributed to areas across the campus. These are federal dollars that the state can go after, and with the economic hardship Nevada has be going through, it’s more important than ever to take advantage.”

Once full status is achieved, the schools can apply for a pool of federal funds.

“It’s a competitive process, and the number of Hispanic Serving Institutions has been growing while the resources at the federal level have been flat or declined somewhat,” said Bart Patterson, president of Nevada State College. “We also believe that (Hispanic Serving Institution status) will help unlock private funding for us. It really acknowledges Nevada State College as a welcoming place for this population that will provide adequate support. It will also help with recruiting diverse faculty and staff.”

Nevada State College has entered into partnerships with local organizations to provide scholarships and promote the campus to Hispanics, and Patterson said the school has a goal of reaching the 25 percent enrollment mark in three years.

Nevada State College has partnered with the Latin Chamber of Commerce, the Libre Initiative and the Guadalupe Medical Center for scholarships and programs to encourage Hispanics to pursue post-secondary education.

Part of the process is improving student outcomes in K-12 education and making college more accessible. The graduation rate in 2008-09 was 71.4 percent for all Nevada students but 60 percent for Hispanics, according to the 2011 Nevada Education Data Book.

Stavan Corbett, a member of the State Board of Education and a candidate for regent for the Nevada System of Higher Education, said improving the number of Hispanic students enrolled in Nevada colleges involves commitment from all sides. Departments that help minority students navigate the college admissions process, especially applying for financial aid, are vital.

“A lot of Hispanic students are first-generation and their parents are very involved in their lives, but the parents don’t understand everything about our school system,” Corbett said. “There is a gap in knowledge, and they might not necessarily know what grants and resources are available to them, so they never even consider college.”

Corbett said some colleges have been more aggressive in their approach, but while programs are in place now to progress toward Hispanic Serving Institution status, the effort has been inconsistent over the years. The K-12 system needs to increase the number of students who go on to post-secondary education and the number who are prepared for college-level work when they receive their high school diploma, Corbett said. On the other end, colleges need to do a better job of reaching out to minorities and diversifying their staff, he said.

“You know the community is going to look a certain way in the next six to 10 years, and it is smart and common sense to not be continually building the plane as it's flying, so to speak,” Corbett said.

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