The gaps are striking.
Each year, for instance, thousands of students at the University of Colorado at Boulder start down the path of getting a bachelor’s degree. Six years later, about 69% have managed to get a degree.
Hispanic men, though? Just 58% graduated.
The story is the same at Colorado State, where 70% of all students but just 58% of Hispanic men graduate.
And at Metropolitan State University of Denver, the numbers are brutal. Of every five Hispanic men who started in 2013, only one of them got a bachelor’s degree.
The raw numbers drive the point home. In 2013, 249 Hispanic men enrolled at MSU Denver seeking a bachelor’s degree. By 2019, 46 of them had degrees. And 203 of them did not.
The disparate rate at which Hispanic men earn degrees from Colorado universities hasn’t improved much over the last decade, even as the institutions enroll more Hispanic students.
Hispanic men go to college at the lowest rates of any student group in Colorado, and all the factors that make it hard for them to get to campus — tight budgets, family obligations, unclear pathways, and few mentors — follow them through college.
“We are at this point where a valuable part of our community is in a black hole,” said Nathan Cadena, chief operating officer at the Denver Scholarship Foundation, an organization that helps Denver students enroll in and graduate college. “And it’s scary. We have got to do something about it.”
Lack of action threatens the dreams of young students — and the state’s economic prosperity. Colorado leaders want 66% of residents equipped with a college degree or certificate by 2025. But despite being the second-largest population in the state, only a quarter of Hispanics have more than a high school diploma. Hispanic men, even more so than Hispanic women, face a steeper climb to get educated.
These outcomes are not inevitable. Around the country, a few institutions have nearly eliminated these gaps by developing systems that catch students before they stumble, rewarding professors for doing more to connect with students, and creating communities that embrace students on campus. The efforts start with a clear message from leaders that this work is a priority and not an afterthought or an extra.
The University of Colorado Denver, MSU Denver, Adams State University, and Colorado State University of Pueblo have been designated Hispanic Serving Institutions, which means at least a quarter of the campus body is Hispanic.
But Wil Del Pilar, vice president for college policy at The Education Trust, said that enrolling more Hispanic students doesn’t mean schools are doing right by those students, especially when so few ever make it to graduation.
“I would argue that most institutions, including in Colorado, aren’t Hispanic serving, they’re Hispanic enrolling,” Pilar said. “They’re not serving those students because they’re not investing in the necessary services that it takes to ensure that students get to graduation.”
Hispanic students get overlooked
After a terrible two years at Colorado State University, Carlos Fernandez-Perez was ready to throw in the towel and leave Fort Collins before his junior year. College had posed a tough challenge despite his getting good grades in high school. Then the shift to remote classes last year because of the COVID pandemic nearly derailed him.
He moved home to Denver and juggled online classes, a part-time job with DoorDash, and care for his 4-year-old sister. It was too much, and he thought college had to go.
“I was going to take a break,” Fernandez-Perez said.
Students who take time off from college frequently don’t come back. So when Fernandez-Perez didn’t reapply for his scholarship with the Latin American Educational Foundation, Jim Chavez, the nonprofit’s executive director, got worried. He got on the phone and pushed Fernandez-Perez to stay in school.
No one at CSU reached out the way Chavez did, Fernandez-Perez said.
Fernandez-Perez left CSU and enrolled instead at MSU Denver. That allowed him to better balance school and family. The tuition also was less.
The support of Chavez and the scholarship foundation helped carry him through a rough time and transition.
“It’s important that students know a person really cares,” Chavez said, “someone who dedicates time and wants the student to succeed and is helping make sure they persist and continue.”
Lower Hispanic male graduation rates are a statewide problem
At MSU Denver, Fernandez-Perez feels that he’s found a better fit. The institution is about 30% Hispanic — twice the proportion of Colorado State or the University of Colorado Boulder — and prides itself on serving nontraditional students with sometimes complicated lives.
Still, students’ choices in institutions matter. Fernandez-Perez left a school with one of the highest graduation rates for Hispanic men for the one with the lowest. In 2019, 58% of Hispanic men at Colorado State graduated within six years, compared with just 18% at Metro.
Statistically, that transfer might have put Fernandez-Perez’s education at risk.
At both institutions — and at almost every four-year college in Colorado, large or small, selective or open access — there is a roughly 10 percentage point gap in the graduation rate between Hispanic men and students as a whole.
Higher education leaders say they’re working to narrow the gap. Colorado State has increased its support services and outreach to high school students as it seeks to become the state’s next Hispanic Serving Institution.
The school has started to put more thought into how to get students to graduation, said Mary Pedersen, the school’s chief academic officer.
School officials tout extra tutoring and everyday support like food and financial assistance.
CSU Pueblo, Colorado Mesa University, and Adams State University also all have programs that help students.
CSU Pueblo recently started a center to connect students to resources. The university trains faculty on how to help them and provides faculty and student mentors.
MSU Denver has extended outreach and provides financial aid, college counseling and mentoring. Graduation rates for all students climbed and doubled for Hispanic men over a decade, from 9% to 18%. But the rate still lags far behind that of other schools.
Recognizing the role campuses like MSU play in educating underserved students, Colorado has reworked how it sends money to those institutions. But given that Colorado funds higher education at one of the lowest rates in the nation, that change still doesn’t cover needs, school officials say, especially at smaller schools that receive less funding per student than CU Boulder and CSU.
The limited programs generally serve hundreds of students, not the tens of thousands who could benefit.
What would it look like if the kind of one-on-one support that helped Fernandez-Perez get back on track existed for all students? What if it came from within the university? Outside Colorado, a few institutions have shown they can change students’ trajectories in a big way by paying close attention to the little things.
Georgia State tracks student success closely
Like MSU Denver, Georgia State is an urban university — in this case, Atlanta — serving mostly students of color, including many students who are the first in their families to go to college and who are at risk of never graduating.
To reach more students who need support, the school uses predictive analysis to determine whether a student might be facing challenges and has dramatically expanded how many advising meetings it holds with students. The school graduates about half its students and over a decade has cut down the gap in rates among racial groups.
Georgia State spends about $2.5 million annually on the effort, but officials have found the school gains much more tuition through retaining students who might have otherwise dropped out.
School staff reach out to students when its technology systems show they might be running into issues, whether faltering grades or a misstep in class registration, said Timothy Renick, director of the National Institute for Student Success at Georgia State.
The school also proactively provides financial support, Renick said. Before distress strikes, the school will place money into a student’s account to ensure they’re not worrying about finances, he said.
“Our philosophy is to make the student support the default rather than the exception,” Renick said.
UC Riverside defies the status quo
At Colorado’s top public universities, Colorado State University and the University of Colorado Boulder, graduation rates are higher for all students than at less-selective institutions, including for Hispanic men. Students of all backgrounds arrive more prepared and often have fewer family obligations and more financial stability. The universities also spend more per student on their education.
A body of research also suggests that attending a more competitive school is associated with a better chance of graduating.
But unlike some of the state’s less competitive public colleges, graduation rates for Hispanic men have been flat over the past decade at CU Boulder and Colorado State, even as they’ve risen slightly for other students.
Selective-admissions schools like the University of California, Riverside offer an example of how to improve graduation rates there.
Officials sought to shift the campus culture to help all students feel more connected to the school. UC Riverside President Kim Wilcox said helping students should be every staff member’s first priority.
“A university is comprised of very talented people but highly competitive people,” Wilcox said. “If you highlight somebody who did something really good, everybody else wants to do the same thing to get the same recognition.
“As a leader, you have to highlight success. And when you have them, you have to amplify them.”
The school graduates 77% of its students and has only small gaps in graduation rates among certain groups like Hispanic students.
Wilcox said freshmen often take classes in their first year with the school’s best professors. The school also provides many clubs and extracurriculars where students can find small communities that make them feel welcome and comfortable.
Wilcox said small programs alone can’t raise student success.
“You have got to play to scale,” he said. “Scale in a large public university is not about any program. We’re almost half Latinx — that’s 13,000 students — how are you going to create a program for 13,000 students?
“It’s called the university.”
Hispanic mentors lead the way
Many of those pushing for higher graduation rates are Hispanic men. Inevitably, the work feels personal. They are, however, few and far between. It’s one reason the challenges faced by Hispanic men on campus remain so broad and persistent, said Pilar of The Education Trust.
“It’s hard to create the type of impetus for folks to want to focus on this population because we are so underrepresented,” Pilar said.
In the face of limited funding and institutional inertia, Hispanic college graduates have developed networks to open doors for today’s students and catch them when they falter. They advise students on challenges like moving away from home, juggling a job and school, or finding a community of friends.
Alonso Chavez Gasca, 24, said he initially felt disconnected when he enrolled in Colorado State University. But he quickly joined a Latino fraternity, found mentors, worked on campus helping other students, and after graduation became a mentor himself with Denver-based INSPiRE, which helps students realize their college dreams.
“To me, mentors make graduation attainable and reachable,” said Chavez Gasca. “And I mentor because I see myself in those kids. Their stories are my story. By giving back, it’s refueling my community and giving students inspirational capital that people like me can graduate and be successful.”
This is the second of two stories examining the challenges Hispanic men face in going to college in Colorado. Read the first story here, about the college aspirations of two brothers.
Jason Gonzales covers higher education for Chalkbeat Colorado, in partnership with Open Campus.