Following in his brother’s footsteps, Steven Perez became the second person in his Mexican-American family to attend college.
When Perez moved to Pennsylvania from a predominantly Hispanic area of Houston, Texas, to study business at Washington & Jefferson College, it seemed he had entered “a parallel world.”
He was suddenly in the minority.
“(My high school counselor) always warned us, ‘There’s going to be that culture shock. You’re maybe not going to see as many Hispanics, or minorities for that matter, in college,’” said Perez, 22, now a graduating senior. “But I didn’t expect such a big difference when I got here.”
Enrollment data at local colleges shows that is starting to change. While students on campus might not see a perceptible difference, the Hispanic and Latino student population at W&J increased nearly threefold over the past 10 years. And at California University of Pennsylvania, Hispanic and Latino enrollment increased by nearly half over the past four years.
The uptick in Hispanic students is largely due to partnerships the two institutions have with high schools in regions with large Hispanic populations. The schools also engage in direct recruiting efforts aimed at familiarizing Hispanic families – many whom are first- and second-generation Americans – with the college application process.
Language and socioeconomic barriers often deter Hispanic parents from sending their children to college. As a result, it typically takes a little more time to recruit Hispanic students, said Karla Romero, an admissions director at Cal U.
“It’s not so traditional that you are recruiting just the students,” Romero said. “You’re pretty much trying to sell the school to an entire family.”
At the high school level, minorities have greatly contributed to the rise in graduation rates nationwide. Hispanic students accounted for a 15 percent increase in the high school graduation rate, compared to a 9 percent increase for African-American students from 2006 to 2012, according to new research.
Specialized charter schools and federal programs have helped bridge the gap. Perez, a third-generation American, graduated from a public charter school system in Houston called YES Prep.
YES Prep steers students from low-income communities on a track toward higher education. College counseling at YES Prep begins in sixth grade, and counselors continue to follow up with alumni in college. Students also receive financial counseling, but they secure grants and scholarships independently.
W&J formed a partnership with YES Prep, and now the first class of YES Prep alumni is preparing to graduate from W&J. In addition to the three graduating seniors, W&J has 14 undergraduate students from YES Prep, some whom are Hispanic students.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that it helped,” Alton Newell, vice president of enrollment at W&J, said of YES Prep’s impact on Hispanic enrollment at W&J.
Newell said African-American enrollment also increased, but it was “not quite as dramatic.”
Similarly, Cal U. currently has 180 Hispanic undergraduate students, which accounted for a 44 percent increase in that demographic since 2010. Comparatively, African-American student enrollment increased by 13 percent.
A Waynesburg University spokesperson said the school has not seen major fluctuations in its minority populations recently.
Cal U. also has local and statewide partnerships with schools participating in a federally-funded program called Upward Bound. Like YES Prep, the program aims to prepare first-generation college students, and students from low-income families, for success in higher education.
The university often recruits from Upward Bound programs in Southeastern Pennsylvania, where there is a larger Hispanic population. The language barrier can be problematic because while most teenagers are bilingual, many Hispanic parents speak only Spanish. Romero often serves as a translator and conduit to help families better understand the college process.
Edgar Beltran, now a junior pre-medicine major at Cal U., completed the Upward Bound program at Lincoln University. He said he always wanted to attend college, but needed some extra assistance because his parents did not complete high school.
“When I moved from Mexico, I didn’t really know anything about going to college here,” said Beltran, who moved to the United States during his senior year of high school. “The biggest challenge is the language barrier, especially for parents.”
Metzli Rivera, 21, one of three YES Prep alumni preparing to graduate from W&J, was the second person in her family to attend college. She said her parents were new to the concept, but YES Prep helped her and her brother through the process.
“Just in Hispanic families, there’s not really much outside of high school,” Rivera said. “If you make it through high school, that’s enough, and a lot of it has to do with economic resources and just the preparation you get in high school.”
While it’s not clear whether more Hispanic families are moving to Washington County, Newell said demographics in the region may begin to change due to Marcellus Shale job opportunities. Migrant workers, some whom are Hispanic, are establishing themselves in the area to work in the natural gas industry.
W&J continues to see marginal increases in other minority groups, as well. Newell said the shifting demographic at W&J continues to “reflect the diversity within our community, within the country and within the world.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.