September 15 marks the start of National Hispanic Heritage month, when we honor the many cultural and economic contributions of Latinos, who comprise nearly one in five Americans. There’s much to celebrate: Latinos inject more than $700 billion into our economy yearly, according to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and more of them are going to college — Latinos have seen double-digit enrollment growth since 2000, the highest of any other major racial and ethnic group. That’s the good news.

The bad news is too many Latino students are still missing from our nation’s college campuses. That’s just one of the troubling findings of our new report — Broken Mirrors II: Latino Student Representation at Public State Colleges and Universities — which notes that at a time when the U.S. population is more diverse than ever, public colleges are failing to serve students who reflect this growing diversity.

Latinos are among the largest and fastest-growing racial and ethnic groups in the country. Despite this and the value Latino parents place on a college degree, fewer than a quarter of Latino adults actually have one. In fact, Latinos have the lowest college attainment of the country’s major racial and ethnic groups. When we account for Latinos born in the U.S., the attainment rate is still only 30%.

Many Latinos never enroll due to a host of barriers to participation, including inequities in our P-12 system, lack of access to counselors/advisors, lack of access to information about colleges, and overly complex financial aid systems. Approximately 31% of Latino adults have less than a high school diploma compared to only 6.2% of White adults.

It’s not supposed to be this way.

Public institutions offer the best opportunity for Latinos to earn a college degree. Public colleges and universities enroll about 85% of Latino undergraduates, and they produce nearly 70% of undergraduate degree earners. What’s more, their tax-exempt and taxpayer-supported status generally makes them the most affordable way for state residents to get a college education.

Yet, in virtually every state we examined, Latinos were vastly underrepresented among undergraduates and degree earners at both community colleges and four-year institutions, leaving significant numbers of them shut out of the middle class, not to mention the many economic and social benefits that generally come with a college education.

We have to do better.

Higher ed is supposed to be an equalizer, but you don’t need a degree to know that colleges are not providing people of all classes, colors, and ethnicities an equitable shot at the American Dream if certain groups have scant access to them.

5 Takeaways on Latino Student Representation at Public Colleges and Universities

But don’t take our word for this. The data speaks for itself. (To see how your state fared, check out our State Equity Report Card web tool.)

1. Latino students are underrepresented at public colleges and universities, especially at community and technical colleges, in the vast majority of states. In 40 of the 44 states (or 90%) examined, Latino students are underrepresented at community and technical colleges. In 33 of the 44 states (or 75%), Latino enrollment at four-year public institutions is not on par with the state’s proportion of Latino residents.

2. The states with the largest Latino populations fail to provide Latino students with the same access to selective public four-year institutions as their White peers. Four of the eight states (California, Texas, Florida, and New York) with enrollment gaps of 10 percentage points or more between Latino and White students were states that accounted for 61.2% of the Latino population. The percentages of the Latino population in those states are: 38.8% (California), 38.8% (Texas), 24.5% (Florida), and 18.8% (New York).

3. In all 44 of the states we examined, Latinos are underrepresented among associate and bachelor’s degree earners. Underrepresentation is worse at the bachelor’s degree level in 14 states. These states are home to nearly 68% of the country’s Latinos who do not have a college degree.

4. A smaller share of Latino graduates received a bachelor’s degree compared to their White peers in most states. Nine states (Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Texas) have double-digit gaps between the shares of Latino and White graduates who are awarded a bachelor’s degree. In these states, Latino graduates disproportionately receive associate degrees and certificates, which can be less valuable than bachelor’s degrees.

5. On a more positive note, several states with sizable Latino populations are close to meeting our benchmarks.
• California, Texas, and Florida have larger Latino populations and scored above the state average on Latino enrollment representation at community and technical colleges. Among those states, Florida earned the highest score.
• Within the public four-year sector, Kentucky, Iowa, Florida, Arkansas, and New York are the highest performers, with Latino enrollment shares that approach or exceed their benchmarks. However, with the exception of Florida and New York, Latinos comprise less than 10% of residents in those states. New Mexico receives an honorable mention for having the largest share of Latino residents among the 50 U.S. states (at 53%) and an above-average score on Latino enrollment representation at public four-year institutions.
• Several states with a substantial population of Latino residents are in the top 10 for Latino representation among associate degree earners — Florida, Texas, New Mexico, New York, and California.
• Among the top 10 performers on Latino representation among bachelor’s degree earners, only Florida and New Mexico have a sizable share of Latino residents.

Despite some positive signs, our findings indicate that public colleges and universities in the overwhelming majority of states are broken mirrors that fail to reflect America’s rich racial and ethnic diversity.

This should concern us all — if not out of fairness, then out of economic self-interest, since Latinos are fast becoming a critical part of the workforce (not to mention the tax and consumer base) in many states.

So, what can we do?

Set State Targets

States must install statewide attainment goals that explicitly aim to close racial and ethnic equity gaps. Broken Mirrors II provides minimal targets for equitably serving Latinos at public colleges and universities. It also builds upon last year’s brief, which found that states need to increase the share of Latinos with a college degree and close attainment gaps between Latino and White adults. As of this year, 43 states have adopted a goal for statewide degree attainment, but only 30 of these include a goal for improving outcomes for students of color. Alongside specific numerical targets for closing gaps in Latino student enrollment, attainment goals should be supplemented by specific strategies for improving Latino student outcomes.

These goals must permeate states’ higher education policies and initiatives. For example, more than 35 states have adopted some form of outcomes-based funding for two- or four-year public institutions. Such policies can foster equity by implementing mandatory equity metrics that disaggregate measures like retention and graduation by race. States can incentivize Latino student enrollment and attainment by offering bonuses for closing enrollment and attainment gaps for Latino students. New Jersey, for example, has proposed a funding formula that allots new and reallocated funds to institutions based on the number of degrees awarded to students from underrepresented racial groups. Likewise, states can incentivize Latino attainment by expanding access for residents with some college but no degree and making sure they are eligible for need-based aid programs.

Build Pipelines and Break Down Barriers

But the focus cannot be limited to higher ed. State and institutional leaders must address systemic racism and roadblocks throughout the educational pipeline. Too many Latinos face extra hurdles on account of their legal status, which can stymie their pursuit of a degree. And Latino underrepresentation at public colleges and universities is an extension of their underrepresention among high school graduates. With the right policies and support, state community college systems can close the high school completion and college attainment gaps. Many community colleges offer high school equivalency exams, like the GED, as well as programs to prepare students for the exam. But additional funding and resources from states would help community colleges strengthen and expand these programs. On the institutional level, community colleges can design pilot pipeline programs, like The Bridge to College and Careers Program at LaGuardia Community College, which helps students earn a GED, enroll in community college, and identify a career path. Meanwhile, advocates can act as liaisons between higher education and P-12 and urge policymakers to invest in GED completion by calling out disparities in the P-12 and higher education pipelines.

Increase Funding

There’s a common theme in all the solutions we have offered: Each requires adequate funding and support to be effective. States and institutions must make meaningful investments to remove barriers and blind spots and provide greater opportunities for Latino students from the cradle through college.

Only when state and institutional leaders implement aggressive measures that empower Latino postsecondary success — instead of perpetuating racial and social injustices — can Hispanic Heritage Month truly be celebrated.