WICHITA, Kansas — The good news for Kansas public colleges: 1,000 more Latino students will be enrolled a decade from now, enough to fill the seats left empty by fewer white students.
The bad news? The state predicts fewer students will earn a degree or certification in 2029, judging by Kansas’ poor track record in graduating Latino students.
It’s a dilemma that has state education officials looking for solutions, be it opening four-year colleges in areas that have large Latino populations or more funding from the Legislature. No matter what, officials are worried that without more workers who have degrees, the state won’t be able to fill high-demand jobs or boost its economy.
The diploma gap
Kansas sent a warning a decade ago. Without more college graduates, the state would face workforce shortages — and less economic growth. That fear has come true: there are shortages in fields like teaching, psychiatry and criminal investigators.
Since 2009, enrollment dropped by about 1% at Kansas universities. Ironically, higher education officials have blamed a strong economy for poor enrollment numbers with fewer students feeling the need to sign up for class to get a job.
But to keep that economy strong, educators say the state needs more college graduates. And with Kansas’ white population continuing to drop, the growing number of Latinos are getting more attention.
Researchers at the Kansas Board of Regents expect a small bump in enrollment in the next 10 years driven by Latino students — but only by about 300 a year. It’s a continuation of a trend in Kansas, as state universities have 35% more Latinos now than five years ago.
But that hasn’t translated to higher graduation rates: In 2018, the six-year graduation rate at state universities was 42% for Latinos, mostly flat since 2012. By comparison, white students in 2018 had a 60% graduation rate.
One of the biggest barriers to getting students — Latino or otherwise — to finish college comes down to price.
Nationally, most Latino college students work more than 30 hours a week. And that’s in light of the fact that students working 15 hours or more a week are more likely to drop out, according to a report from Georgetown University.
“(Students are) not doing all of the things critical to be successful as a student,” said Wil Del Pilar, the vice president of higher education at The Education Trust, a national education think tank that advocates for minority and low-income students. “You’re not in office hours. You’re probably not doing that extra study.”
Money and mentors
One way to fix that, the Kansas Board of Regents says, is making college more affordable through better state funding. (For example, tuition and fees at Kansas State University exceed $5,000 per semester.)
The Regents asked for an extra $96 million in the higher education budget this year, but lawmakers appear unlikely to follow suit.
A growing Latino student body could lead to more federal dollars for public schools, due to U.S. Department of Education grant programs for institutions where at least one in four students are Latino. Several Kansas colleges, including community colleges in Dodge City and Garden City, more than meet the criteria.
But funding isn’t the only way to improve Latino graduation rates, experts say. It’s key to give them guidance to maneuver within the college system.
Latino students are more likely to be the first member of their family to go to college, meaning they’re without first-hand knowledge of how to navigate college enrollment and financial aid. Confusion about how to apply for college or transfer from a community college to a university end up being roadblocks for many Latino students.
“There are changes that you can make without having this huge new infusion of money,” said Janette Martinez, a researcher with Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit that researches how to improve Latino student outcomes.
Wichita State relies on mentoring programs aimed at students of color and first-generation students to help get them from one semester to the next. Coaches help connect students with school resources they might not know about.
The university also plans on hiring a cluster of faculty members for a Latinx Studies program so Latino stuents will fee better represented by their faculty and in the school's curriculum. Experts also say making Latino students feel like they belong on campus is critical for recruitment and retention.
Kansas also wants to offer four-year degree options in Dodge City so students living there don’t have to travel more than 100 miles for a bachelor’s degree.
“We’ve heard from the Dodge City and Garden City area that some individuals don’t want to move very far away from home,” Regents president Blake Flanders said. “The southwest corner of the state is the only corner that doesn’t have a baccalaureate level institution.”
Education experts say attempts to assist Latino students could also help all students earn diplomas. And with the overall graduation rate at Kansas universities at 54%, there’s plenty of room to boost graduation rates for everyone.
“We want all groups, in fact, to access higher education,” Flanders said, “so that we can have students graduate and get into really good jobs.”
Correction: This story has been corrected to show that Wichita State hired a director of Latinx Studies and has plans for more faculty.
Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @stevebisaha.
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