Georgia colleges seek to fill student needs as Hispanic enrollment increases

Georgia Gwinnett College student Alejandro Osorio hands a name tag to Melissa Hernandez from HYPE (Hispanic Young Professionals and Entrepreneurs). Hernandez attended a networking event on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, that is part of the HACER (Hispanic Achievers Committed to Excellence in Results) program. HACER is a living/learning initiative for Latino students, and the Oct. 12 event was an opportunity for students to meet and network with representatives from area corporations and community groups. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
Georgia Gwinnett College student Alejandro Osorio hands a name tag to Melissa Hernandez from HYPE (Hispanic Young Professionals and Entrepreneurs). Hernandez attended a networking event on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, that is part of the HACER (Hispanic Achievers Committed to Excellence in Results) program. HACER is a living/learning initiative for Latino students, and the Oct. 12 event was an opportunity for students to meet and network with representatives from area corporations and community groups. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

More than two dozen Hispanic Georgia Gwinnett College students gathered in a ballroom on campus last Tuesday for a networking session with local business and community leaders called “Noche de Liderazgo” or “Night of Leadership.”

First-year student Brian Catalan attended, hoping to network and to find his footing on campus.

Catalan, 19, a native Georgian whose parents are from Guatemala, felt he needed a stronger connection with his Hispanic heritage. He recognized a few years ago he was saying some words around his parents in English that he once said in Spanish.

“I sort of felt like I drifted,” he said.

For Georgia Gwinnett officials, the goal of this event and others is to help students like Catalan succeed in the classroom and connect culturally on campus. It has become part of the mission of several Georgia colleges and universities. The percentage of Hispanic students in Georgia’s public university system more than doubled in the past decade to slightly more than 10%, growing at a faster rate than any racial demographic group.

Dalton State College became the first public school in the state to surpass 25% Hispanic student enrollment four years ago, making it a federally recognized Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), which makes it eligible for additional grants. Georgia Gwinnett College, with a Hispanic enrollment last fall of 24.8%, is poised to become the second HSI. Georgia Highlands College and the University of North Georgia have Hispanic enrollments above 15%.

Last fall was the first year the University System’s Hispanic enrollment surpassed 10%. The numbers increased by four-tenths of a percentage point from 2019, despite reports showing a decline in Hispanic enrollment nationally. Experts say COVID-19 severely impacted the Hispanic community economically, prompting some high school graduates to choose full-time work over college.

College affordability has been a long-standing issue for many Hispanic students. About 50% of Hispanic students nationwide take out loans to pay for college, federal data shows. Nearly 60% of Georgia Gwinnett’s Hispanic students received federal Pell grants, which are based on financial need. Because of language barriers and more of them attending low-performing schools, many Hispanic students don’t get prime academic scholarships. Georgia Budget & Policy Institute research shows less than 10% of Hispanic students receive a Zell Miller Scholarship, which covers the entire tuition costs for schools in Georgia’s University System.

The six-year graduation rate for Hispanic students in the University System of Georgia is 60%, 3 percentage points behind the overall rate. College completion rates for Hispanic students at all four-year Georgia colleges is 43%, 5 percentage points behind white students, according to Excelencia in Education, an organization that promotes achievement for Latino students nationwide.

Georgia colleges are trying different ways to support their Hispanic students. Dalton State, through a federal grant, has an academic success coach and an academic adviser for its Hispanic students. The University of North Georgia has a Latino Leadership program that includes $3,000 scholarships for leadership development. At the University of West Georgia, some alumni recently started a scholarship for Spanish majors. The University of Georgia earlier this year relaunched a program aimed at recruiting more Hispanic students. Georgia Tech, which has become more aggressive in recruiting students of color, has seen a 25% increase in Hispanic student enrollment in the past two years, to about 3,500 students.

Georgia Gwinnett College has long supported student groups on campus such as the Organization of Latin American Students to help Hispanic students feel they belong and earn degrees. The college decided it must do more, and this year started Hispanic Achievers Committed to Excellence in Results (HACER), which offers faculty and peer mentors, a bilingual adviser, study abroad opportunities and an on-campus, living-learning option where Hispanic students can live in the same student housing to learn and grow with one another.

Caption
State Rep. Pedro Marin, D-Duluth, speaks during an Oct. 12, 2021, networking event organized as part of Georgia Gwinnett College’s HACER (Hispanic Achievers Committed to Excellence in Results) program. The program helps students find a professional career. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

State Rep. Pedro Marin, D-Duluth, speaks during an Oct. 12, 2021, networking event organized as part of Georgia Gwinnett College’s HACER (Hispanic Achievers Committed to Excellence in Results) program. The program helps students find a professional career. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
State Rep. Pedro Marin, D-Duluth, speaks during an Oct. 12, 2021, networking event organized as part of Georgia Gwinnett College’s HACER (Hispanic Achievers Committed to Excellence in Results) program. The program helps students find a professional career. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Many of them are first-generation college students who were born and raised in Georgia. Some are from other countries. Georgia Gwinnett asked its Hispanic students what they wanted from the school. Frequent replies included how to get financial aid, academic advice, more cultural events and how they can get their parents more involved in their education.

“HACER can pave the way for other efforts that we believe will be very successful at GGC. It’s sort of a brave new future for us,” said Justin Jernigan, the college’s senior associate vice president and dean of student success.

Georgia Gwinnett officials recognize in order for HACER to work, they’ll eventually need more peer mentors, funding for the study abroad program and partnerships with community groups to organize more events like “Noche de Liderazgo.”

Adding more Hispanic faculty members throughout the University System of Georgia is another area that could be important for student success. About 4% of its faculty members are Hispanic, system data shows, well below the percentage of its student enrollment. Research shows students perform better academically when they’re taught by people from similar backgrounds, higher education experts note.

Longtime state Rep. Pedro “Pete” Marin, D-Duluth, who helped craft the charter that created Georgia Gwinnett College in 2005, sat at a table inside last week’s event and marveled at the college’s growth. Marin, who is of Puerto Rican descent, said the next step to help Hispanic college students throughout Georgia is allowing students who have been granted a reprieve from deportation to pay in-state tuition at all University System schools. State Board of Regents policy currently prohibits those students from attending some of the state’s top universities, such as the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech.

“I think they should have the opportunity to go to any college they want,” Marin said.

Conservative activists have argued such changes would take away enrollment spots from U.S.-born students. Recent legislation to change the guidelines has not passed, and a legal challenge was unsuccessful.

About one-fifth of the nation’s college students identify as Latina, Latino or Hispanic. More than 400 colleges and universities nationwide are federally recognized HSIs, roughly four times the number of accredited historically Black colleges and universities. The bulk of those schools are in California, Texas and Puerto Rico, which have larger Hispanic populations than Georgia; Georgia’s Hispanic population is nearly 10%, U.S. Census Bureau data shows. The percentage is higher in Gwinnett County, roughly 22%, and 33% in its public school district.

Since it opened its doors in August 2006, Georgia Gwinnett College has been the next educational step for many of those Gwinnett County public school district graduates. Three-quarters of its 11,600 students come from Gwinnett County. The college’s racial demographics are nearly identical to the school district’s.

Caption
Georgia Gwinnett College students Joel Linares and Lesny Avila interact moments before a networking event for Hispanic students on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia Gwinnett College students Joel Linares and Lesny Avila interact moments before a networking event for Hispanic students on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
Georgia Gwinnett College students Joel Linares and Lesny Avila interact moments before a networking event for Hispanic students on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia Gwinnett seniors Lesny Avila, 21, and Joel Linares, 22, are part of the school district pipeline. They were born in Georgia and graduated from high schools — Avila from Duluth High and Linares from Central Gwinnett — in the school district. They cheerfully stood behind the Organization of Latin American Students table at Tuesday’s event, which had a display of several multicolored serapes and masks, awards from the college and a sign-up sheet.

They say the organization helped them make friends, find study partners and figure out the best professors. It also made them feel more comfortable at the college, located in Lawrenceville, north of Ga. 316, a few miles east of Sugarloaf Mills. Those connections are a challenge for many Hispanic students, they say, since most live off campus.

Avila joined the group during her first year at the college to “feel closer to other Latino students because being on campus was such a new thing for me.”

Caption
Georgia Gwinnett College student Brian Catalan (right) interacts with Justin Jernigan, its senior associate vice president and dean of student success, at a recent event. Catalan stated that he wanted to take advantage of the event to look for the career opportunity that is right for him. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia Gwinnett College student Brian Catalan (right) interacts with Justin Jernigan, its senior associate vice president and dean of student success, at a recent event. Catalan stated that he wanted to take advantage of the event to look for the career opportunity that is right for him. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
Georgia Gwinnett College student Brian Catalan (right) interacts with Justin Jernigan, its senior associate vice president and dean of student success, at a recent event. Catalan stated that he wanted to take advantage of the event to look for the career opportunity that is right for him. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Catalan, 19, had a similar longing and joined HACER. Catalan believes HACER is already helping through the Spanish course he’s taking that has helped him learn more about his Hispanic heritage and through events he attended like the one on Tuesday.

“I see people like me. We’re trying to figure some things out,” he said. “We want to build a base and get involved in the community.”


Year Hispanic enrollment Systemwide pct.

2020 34,703 10.2%

2015 23,145 7.3%

2010 14,581 4.7%

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