What the Census Tells Us

Hispanic Community September 2023 PREMIUM
Gustavo A. Mellander explores the historical context of censuses from ancient Babylon to modern U.S. practices. It discusses recent research on young Hispanic educational achievements, challenges, and the need for innovative strategies to support underserved populations in higher education.

A Bit of History

In 3800 BCE, the Babylonian Empire conducted the first known census. They did not count humans. Instead, they counted their livestock and quantities of “butter, honey, milk, wool, and vegetables.”

China’s Han Dynasty, 2 C.E. records the oldest surviving human census data. It revealed a population of 57.7 million people living in 12.4 million households.

Without a written language, the Incas in the 1400s nonetheless developed a system of knots on strings made from llama or alpaca hair to record census data and administer their vast empire.

In the United States, a census has been conducted every ten years since 1790, when enumerators on horseback conducted the first one. It took 18 months to complete. The results established the size of the House of Representatives.   

The Hispanic Population

In May 2023, Erik L. Hernandez and Kevin McElrath, U.S. Census researchers, reported on the “significant educational strides by young Hispanics.”

As many H.O. readers know, Hispanics more than quadrupled from 14.6 million in 1980 to 62.1 million in 2021. Their share of the population increased from 6.2 percent to 18.7 percent. Most were migrants and many were youngsters, although native-born Hispanics grew as well.

As the Hispanic population exploded, so did its educational attainment.

Yet, for many Hispanics, educational milestones are recent events. In 2021, the majority of Hispanic adults were between ages 25 and 34; their median age was 30.5 years.

This young segment of the Hispanic population had the highest college completion rate (bachelor’s degree or higher). That’s the good news. The bad news is that Hispanics have the lowest high school completion rate.  

Young Hispanic Educational Achievements, 2005-2021

  The Census summarized Hispanic education achievements in four categories: less than a high school degree; high school only; some college; and a bachelor’s degree or higher.   

During this 16-year period, Hispanics achieved considerable success rates in all four categories.

In 2005, one-third of Hispanics, ages 25-34, had some college. Further, 2.7 million had less than a high school education, 2.3 million only had a high school degree, 1.6 million had some college, and fewer than 1 million had a bachelor’s degree or higher.

By 2021, over half of young Hispanics had some college. The number with less than a high school degree dropped 45.8 percent to 1.5 million. There were increases in all other categories: high school only (up 28.3 percent to 2.9 million), some college (up 76.5 to 2.9 million), and a bachelor’s degree or higher (up 145.2 percent to 2.2 million).

More specific data indicates that while in 1996, 58.2 percent of Hispanics ages 25 to 29 had graduated from high school, by 2021, the share increased to 88.5 percent. The same trend is evident in college enrollments. The number of Hispanics aged 18 to 24 enrolled in college increased from 1.2 million in 2005 to 2.4 million in 2021.  

Differences between Hispanic Origin Groups

As might be expected, there were different growth patterns based on particular starting points. For instance, Cuban and South American populations started with relatively high levels of college enrollment in 2005 and saw relatively small or non-statistically significant increases.

The Mexican population had the largest increase in college enrollment, with a 12-percentage-point increase from 21 percent in 2005 to 33 percent in 2021. Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Central Americans, and other Hispanics increased by 7.5 percent or higher.

There has been a significant increase of Hispanics earning bachelor’s degrees from 2005 to 2021:

South American (46 percent) and Cuban (35.9 percent) groups had higher levels of bachelor’s degree attainment than all other Hispanic groups in 2021 and for the entire 16-year period. The South American population had the biggest increase (12 percent) of any Hispanic origin group.

• Mexicans and Central Americans increased by around 10 percentage points.

• Puerto Rican, Dominican, and others had similar growth rates, starting between 15 percent and 20 percent, and increasing to between 27 percent and 28 percent.

Changing times

On May 30, 2023, Fernanda Zamudio-Suarez addressed census-based Hispanic college successes and how to maintain the momentum in her Race on Campus Newsletter.

She noted that the number of Hispanic college students “is exploding.”

Yet, given the pandemic, the number of Hispanic students enrolled in college dropped between 2019 and 2020. Deborah A. Santiago of Excelencia in Education noted that the decline of Hispanic enrollment was particularly difficult since experts had predicted even greater growth.

“It was a disproportionate negative drop for us because we were expected to grow while the white population was expected to decrease,” Santiago said.

Need for New College Recruitment and Retention Strategies

Hispanics are a young cohort; most Hispanic adults were between 25 and 34 years old in 2021. That large, young population is the ideal age to attend college.

Hispanics enrolled in colleges present different challenges from those who came before the pandemic. Historically, most Hispanics who drop out or fail to enroll right after high school never attend college. That reality has to be faced.

Some colleges have intensified their relationships with high schools to better serve Hispanics. More are being offered advanced placement classes while in high school to earn college credit. That not only gives them a leg up but is a strong motivator.

Other colleges are helping students attend as part-time instead of full-time students. Going full-time is often daunting for many Hispanics, who feel obligated to earn money to support their families. Attending on a part-time basis while working makes college more doable by accommodating their realities.

Bottom line

Although there were different starting points and growth patterns for different Hispanic origin groups, all Hispanic groups succeeded in increasing the number of high school and college graduates.

The pandemic cut deeply into Hispanic college enrollments. But fresh efforts are being implemented at many institutions to turn that around.

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision to prohibit using race as one of many admissions criteria will, many fear, hurt Hispanic enrollments.

New strategies must be developed to serve underserved populations. 

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