DENVER — Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Latino students were the fastest-growing demographic enrolling in college. The pandemic slowed that progress down.
Pew Research found in the fall of 2020, 100,000 fewer Hispanics enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities than the year before, and Hispanic enrollment at two-year colleges declined by about 230,000, or 15%.
“I am from Durango, Mexico, and I was brought to the United States when I was 5 years old,” said Dianice Salas.
“My family and me, I am Mexican, so I am the only one who could be in this place. I am the only one who goes to college,” said student Lizbeth Collado.
Both of these young women are the first in their families to pursue higher education, and they chose to do that at Emily Griffith Technical College in Denver.
It's a Hispanic-serving institution, or HSI, which means at least 25% of students are Hispanic. At Emily Griffith, 39% of the student body is Hispanic.
“It's a message to the larger community, our Hispanic community, that we're a welcoming, supportive environment,” said Randy Johnson, executive director of Emily Griffith Technical College. "A quarter of our instructors are Hispanic. That's really important to creating the environment that our students walk into and say, ‘Yeah, I see myself here. I know I'm valued here.”
Knowing their school prioritizes Hispanic student success is inspiring Collado and Salas to dream bigger.
“It just made me more confident about myself to not just say, 'OK, I'm just going to do a CNA. So, now in my mind, I'm like, ‘No, I can go for LPN. I can even go for RN.' You know, you get that motivation from this place,” Dianice Salas.
“Now, I am working on the fast food. So, when I get my title, I get more money, like more opportunities, and then that helps my family grow up,” said Collado.
But despite the positive impact they can have, HSIs saw a big setback during the pandemic.
After decades of expansion, the number of HSIs across the country declined from 569 to 559.
Any loss in access to education is alarming to executive director Randy Johnson.
“It adds more of that urgency to really get yourself right. Are you part of your community? Are you aligned with your community, and are you presenting yourself as a welcome opening, very professional location?” Johnson said.
Johnson said at Emily Griffith, they specifically reach out to recruit Hispanic high school students, and that's part of why this trade school has seen Hispanic student enrollment increase this year—by 8%.
Johnson believes offering quicker paths to a career or certification than a 4-year degree can be a huge incentive to get students into HSIs.
Students said offering bilingual resources and showing students support through their own culture can make all the difference.
“That makes me feel special and that we're needed in this country, and we're here to do good,” said Salas.
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