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    What does it take to boost Latino college completion rates?

    Lisa McBride, vice president of diversity and inclusion at Salem State University, took part in a group exercise on campus.
    Lisa McBride, vice president of diversity and inclusion at Salem State University, took part in a group exercise on campus.

    IF YOU’RE A HISPANIC high school student in Massachusetts, the odds that you’ll go to college, and then earn a degree, are alarmingly slim.

    Fewer than half of Latino college students in the Commonwealth — 44 percent — earn a degree or certificate within six year of enrollment, compared to 69 percent of whites. The challenges for Hispanic college students start right away: More than half of Latino students in the state had to take a remedial lesson in their first semester of college, compared with 28 percent of their white peers. The numbers play out unfavorably in the workforce: Only 23 percent of Latino adults in Massachusetts have an associate degree or higher. Those workers, and the whole state, suffer the consequences when pathways to higher-wage jobs close. The Massachusetts economy needs better educational attainment in general, and particularly from the growing Latino community.

    One university has managed to close the graduation gap, though, showing that with close attention and effort, progress is possible. Salem State University was recently recognized as one of the 10 top-performing institutions for Latino student success by the nonprofit advocacy group the Education Trust. Salem State, the only New England institution included in the top 10, offers a blueprint that the rest of our public universities should replicate.


    The school ranks seventh in the country among similar universities, according to the report. Its Latino graduation rate is 46.7 percent, only 1.5 percentage points lower than the rate of white students.

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    The winning formula is not that complicated. “When Latinos or African-Americans are a small part of the campus, they’re pretty much ignored,” said Carlos Santiago, the state’s commissioner of higher education. But Latinos account for 17 percent of the enrollment at Salem State. “What we’re seeing is when they’re visible, then the institution pays more attention to them.”

    The gains have been achieved by increasing the number of faculty and staff members of color; hiring multilingual personnel; and opening the student navigation center, a one-stop shop to help guide students with anything from billing and financial aid to registration and housing.

    A greater focus on earlier interventions should help, too. Governor Baker’s proposed budget includes $3 million to expand the state’s nascent early-college program; a similar program has been very successful for Hispanics in Texas. High school programs like Mass Insight Education’s Advanced Placement STEM and English coursework have made significant inroads in bringing college-level academics, and, with it, college-level ambitions, to more students from diverse backgrounds. Then there’s the state’s 100 Males to College program, which focuses on helping young men form a college-going identity and already is yielding strong results.

    The need for concerted action is clear: Massachusetts was recently ranked as the state with the worst economic inequality between its white and Latino residents. The income gap is staggering — on average, a white household earns $82,000 annually, while a Hispanic one earns just $39,000.


    Massachusetts still lacks enough college graduates to fill its workforce needs. Stronger efforts to build a better pipeline of Hispanic graduates promise to go a long way toward keeping the state an economic leader.