Colleges reach out to Hispanics as enrollment sags

Driving along US-411N, flanked by rolling green hills and slow-moving cows, it seems surprising to hear a DJ on the FM dial breathlessly announcing a merengue show in nearby Knoxville _ in Spanish.

In fact, Tennessee, like fellow Appalachian states Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, is home to one of the fastest-growing Hispanic populations in the country, much younger on average than the region’s non-Hispanic white and black populations, and with larger families.

This hasn’t escaped the attention of the region’s colleges, most of which have drawn heavily on the area’s non-Hispanic white population for their students. But that population is shrinking, said Deborah Santiago, the vice president for policy at Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit agency that advocates for Hispanics in higher education.

“It’s in their economic self-interest to learn how to attract and retain Latinos,” Santiago said.

Doing this won’t be easy. Limited experience with college, lower household incomes and other factors have made Hispanics less likely to enroll in and succeed at college. But as universities across the country contend with flat and even declining enrollments, they’re starting to go after the biggest growth market: Hispanics.

Recruiting Hispanics to college is “one of those wonderful situations where you can do the right thing morally as well as financially,” said Irene Burgess, the vice president for academic programs at the Appalachian College Association.

The association _ a group of 36 small, private, largely faith-based schools in Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia _ has given small grants to eight member colleges aimed at helping them attract and retain Hispanic students.

Already the largest and fastest-growing minority group, Hispanics will account for 60 percent of population growth through 2050, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Yet they have the lowest education attainment levels of any group in the United States.

Raising those levels will have a nationwide impact, said Santiago, whose organization has provided some technical assistance to the Appalachian colleges.

“One of two workers in the future will be brown,” she said. “If they’re not getting quality education, they’re not going to pay as much into the Social Security system. . . . The reality is, we’re not going to meet our economic goals as a nation unless we educate this population.”

The Appalachian region may be only the first to attack this issue with a concerted effort.

“We’re going to see more of this in the future,” said Leticia Bustillos, an education policy expert at the National Council of La Raza, one of the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights organizations.

It’s simply practical. In Tennessee alone, the Hispanic population increased 134 percent from 2000 to 2010, the third fastest of any state, according to a 2010 study by Excelencia and the Appalachian College Association. The population of Hispanic children ages 5 and under grew 178 percent, the second-highest rate of growth in the nation, while Tennessee’s overall population of children rose just 7 percent.

At the same time, only about 1 in 6 of the state’s Hispanics had an associate’s degree or higher, less than half the state average. In Knoxville, more than 1 in 4 Hispanics lived in poverty, twice the city’s overall rate.

Vandy Kemp, the vice president and dean of students at Maryville College, said she’d had an “aha” moment when she saw projections that showed the population of non-Hispanic white public high school graduates shrinking by 15 percent nationwide through 2023 and that of Hispanics increasing by 88 percent.

“I thought, ‘Now what are we going to do about that?’ ” she recalled.

Maryville, one of the South’s oldest colleges, founded in 1819, got one of the grants to increase its enrollment of Hispanics. The college has launched what it calls the Villamaria initiative, which has included hosting first-ever events involving local Hispanics and starting a Latino Student Alliance.

“The Hispanic community was invisible to the college before Villamaria,” Kemp said.

The college’s admissions director has purchased a list of students who identified themselves as Hispanic on their SAT tests and live within 500 miles of the campus. Administrators think the college has the resources to help Hispanics who need financial aid. The college is also developing plans to endow scholarships for immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally.

Jose Perez, a junior majoring in psychology, was one of 27 Hispanics among the college’s 1,168 students when Maryville applied for the grant that launched its Hispanic student outreach effort. Now he has a business card that identifies him as a “Maryville College Ambassador.” He said he hoped that speaking to the parents of Hispanic prospective students in their native language made them feel more welcome. As for the students, he hopes it means something for them “to see someone like themselves.”

Perez is typical of most of Maryville’s students in that he comes from a town nearby: Mosheim, about 80 miles to the northeast. His father works on tomato farms. He said his family never thought he could go to a college such as Maryville because of its cost _ nearly $32,000 this year. But after scholarships and loans, his out-of-pocket expenses this year will be $5,000, he said.

Perez said he recognized the economic importance to colleges of attracting more Hispanic students, but he’s taken to his role as a sort of calling: “I care about helping Hispanics.”

One person he seems to have helped decide to apply to Maryville is Anthony Funes Lopez. A 17-year-old high school senior from nearby Lenoir City, Funes Lopez said his father, a carpenter, always told him, “Go to college and make something of yourself, so you don’t have to work at some crappy job like me for $8 an hour.”

When it came time to choose where to go, he first thought of nearby community colleges, which are cheaper and closer to home. On a teacher’s recommendation, he visited Maryville. Perez took him to some classes and a meeting of the Latino Student Alliance. Seeing Perez “so proud of being Hispanic” made an impression on him, Funes Lopez said.

He applied, was accepted and is waiting for his financial aid package. He’s one of 27 Hispanics who’ve been admitted for the fall. He’ll be the first in his family to go to college, which makes him both excited and anxious.

“It feels great . . . to make something of myself,” he said. “But I don’t want to disappoint my family.”