Understanding Latinx College Student Diversity and Why It Matters

January 29, 2018

Share this

By Marcela Cuellar

This post is part of the series Beyond the Margins: Meeting the Needs of Underserved Students.

As Latinx postsecondary enrollments increase, understanding this population of students could cultivate more inclusive campus climates that enhance student success. Although often treated as a monolithic group in comparison to other racial groups, the Latinx population is remarkably diverse. Similar to another blog in this series on Pan-Asian student classifications, understanding the heterogeneity within this minoritized group can help colleges and universities intentionally serve Latinx students and promote their advancement.

Hispanic or Latino?

Several terms are used to describe students from this minoritized group. Hispanic has been used to broadly refer to individuals with heritages from Spanish-speaking countries, regardless of race. The federal government officially uses the term Hispanic, which first appeared in a limited version of the 1970 Census and later adopted broadly in subsequent versions.

Latino is another commonly used term that refers to individuals with ancestry in Latin America. As Latino in Spanish is a masculine term, Latina/o is often used to simultaneously recognize feminine and masculine versions of this identity. Some students and institutions are now adopting Latinx as a gender inclusive term that captures multiple intersectional identities. Some professional associations acknowledge these multiple identifiers as in the case of Latinx/a/o.

Preferences for identification as Hispanic or Latino often vary by region as well as by national origin. Although the Census has collected data on Latinxs as an ethnic group and not a racial category for more than 40 years, more individuals have recently employed various ways to self-identify, complicating accurate estimates of this growing group. Consequently, researchers currently are rethinking how to better capture the Latinx population through the Census and federal databases.

Latinx Trends Across the Country

The Latinx population has steadily grown across the country and within higher education. Latinx communities comprise 17 percent of the population in the United States, a significant increase from only 6 percent in the 1980s.

Large Latinx communities have been historically concentrated in a few states in the southwest, south, and northeast. However, the “New Latino Diaspora” describes the Latinx migration of new immigrants and multigenerational U.S. citizens to other states and regions, such as Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Washington. Reflecting this population growth, more Latinx students are enrolling in college. In 2015, 67 percent of Latinx students enrolled in college right after high school as compared to 49 percent in 2000.

Recognizing Latinx Student Diversity

Whether referred to as Hispanic or Latinx, this group is often treated as a monolith, which minimizes the inherent diversity embedded under this umbrella term. As Spanish is spoken in many countries across several continents, the national origins of Latinx students are diverse.

The groups with the largest representations and a long historical presence in the United States are Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. Though comprising the overwhelming majority, the representation of Mexican-origin individuals has gradually declined since 2008 with increased immigration from other Latin American countries. Salvadorans, Cubans, Dominicans, Guatemalans and Colombians, each with more than a million residents across the country, are among the next largest Latinx populations.

Additionally, Latinx students are racially diverse. Though some Latinx students identify as mestizo—meaning a combination of indigenous, African, and European ancestry—others identify as fully indigenous, especially individuals from areas in southern Mexico and Central America. Moreover, some students also have African and Asian roots throughout the Caribbean and South America.

Beyond national origins and racial background, Latinx student diversity is clear when considering other characteristics such as generational status, immigration status, language, and socioeconomic status. Since 2000, for example, US births are the driving force of growth of the Latinx population in the United States and not immigration. More than 65 percent of the Latinx population is U.S. born, indicating substantial diversity in terms of citizenship and generational status.

Similarly, language background and use among Latinxs is also diverse. About a quarter of all Latinxs age five or older only speak English at home, while 41 percent indicate speaking English and another language. About a third do not speak English at home or do not speak it proficiently. While English proficiency among this group has risen, many Latinxs also believe that speaking Spanish is important for future generations, which perhaps explains the high rates of bilingualism at home.

It is important to keep in mind that language diversity among Latinx students extends beyond English and Spanish, with several students also speaking indigenous languages or dialects.

Why Understanding This Diversity Matters

Understanding such diversity informs how institutions can intentionally serve Latinxs. Disaggregating this monolithic group in institutional analyses, for example, is critical to exploring the range of student experiences and outcomes.

Relatively little is known about how these multiple and diverse identities among Latinx students shape college experiences and outcomes. Often due to a lack of data, only a few large-scale quantitative studies account for different ethnic groups among Latinx students. By disaggregating institutional data for Latinx students, institutions can more effectively identify targeted approaches to serve this population and promote their success.

Identifying possible inequities among Latinx students

Examining multiple identities among Latinx students can provide insights into possible differences or inequities in educational experiences or outcomes. Although 34 percent of Latinxs ages 18-24 enroll in college, the percentage of Mexican Americans, Guatemalans and Hondurans is slightly below the average, while rates are higher among Cubans and Dominicans. Ethnic differences also emerge when examining educational attainment. While 14 percent of all Latinxs over the age of 25 in the United States possess a bachelor’s degree, only 10 percent of Mexican Americans and 8 percent of Salvadarons hold this degree in comparison to 18 percent of Dominicans and 25 percent of Cubans.


Latinx students also differ in how much they think about multiple identities. For example, according to one study, about half of Latinx students reported thinking a lot about race and class, but racial identity was especially salient for Central Americans and class for lower-income students. Students may also experience college environments differently depending on the salience of these identities. For instance, while most Latinx students think less about race when there are more Latinxs on a campus, the salience of race increases for Central Americans, likely because they remain a minority within the larger Latinx population.

Slight differences also emerge in considering other psychosocial outcomes. For instance, Latinx students who self-identify as “Other Latino” (a monolithic category that captures any student who does not identify as Cuban, Puerto Rican, or Mexican American) on surveys showed more growth on academic self-concept during college in comparison to Mexican Americans. Additionally, Latinx students who identify as multiracial (European American and Latinx) perceive fewer links between barriers and their ethnicity than monoracial Latinx peers do.

These few studies provide a glimpse into different experiences embedded within this monolithic group. By disaggregating this diverse group, institutions can identify possible inequities in student experiences and outcomes, which may inform approaches that more comprehensively support all Latinxs.

Building on linguistic assets in academic programming

Often cited barriers to postsecondary success among Latinx students are academic challenges, particularly among English learners. Educational programs that provide academic support to students with limited English proficiency skills, such as the Transitional Bilingual Learning Community (TBLC) at City Colleges of Chicago – Harry S. Truman are useful for Latinx English Learners. Bilingual education programs such as this one helps English learners build their language skills and transition to college-level courses sooner, thereby facilitating their retention and degree attainment.

However, many Latinx students are also heritage speakers—speaking Spanish at home while also being English proficient. This linguistic diversity is an asset from which colleges can create different programs to support Latinx students.

Among Latinx heritage speakers, developing bilingual skills can be merged into academic programs. For example, Miami Dade College offers a dual language program as part of the Honors College, and CSU Fullerton is now offering a bilingual and bicultural master’s program to prepare therapists to work with Latinx families. Programs such as these can foster success because the extent to which Latinx students feel their language and culture is affirmed, the more connected they feel to an institution. Acknowledging these linguistic skills as assets and supporting students’ language development can help Latinx students further succeed in the workforce given the economic advantage multilingual abilities provide.

Creating empowering environments for varied Latinx needs

In creating more inclusive environments and promoting student success, colleges and universities should further consider how to support the holistic needs of Latinx students according to intersectional experiences they may encounter.

For instance, research indicates that gender is particularly salient for Latinx males when there are more Latinx females on a campus. As Latinx women now outnumber Latinx men on most college campuses, the needs of men and women may differ. Designing programs that provide students a space to make sense of their experiences can generate engagement and enhance success, which may be particularly important among Latinx men.

At UC Davis, for example, the recently created Center for Chicanx and Latinx Academic Student Success (CCLASS) houses several programs addressing the unique academic, social, and personal development of Latinx men and women. This academic center offers quarterly support groups for men (TLACELEL) and women (In Lak’ech). The center also offers courses focused on Latinx men and women where students learn about research and engage with peers on defining success in higher education. Strategic and intentional efforts like these support the academic needs of Latinx students and cultivate empowering environments, which can facilitate greater success.

As more Latinx students pursue a college education, understanding the diversity among this population can help colleges and universities more intentionally serve and support their success. Developing approaches to better serve the Latinx student population requires more nuanced considerations of how experiences and outcomes may differ across and within this group.

If you have any questions or comments about this blog post, please contact us.

Keep Reading

Helping College Students Make Informed Student Loan Decisions

Recent surveys demonstrate that many college students do not know whether they have borrowed or how much debt they have accrued during college. What can higher education institutions—and the federal government—do to help?

September 27, 2017

ACE at 100: Supporting College Access and Diversity

Achieving equitable access to college for communities of color and recognizing and protecting institutional autonomy and freedom to construct a diverse campus that generates educational benefits for its students have been critical goals for ACE throughout its history.

December 12, 2018

Affirming Racial Diversity: Student Affairs as a Change Agent

As we continue the discussion about race on college campuses, an important question is emerging: Are institutions of higher education the correct entities to task with addressing racial issues in the United States? Amelia Parnell of NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education looks at the role student affairs professionals can play in advocating for diversity on their campus.

June 29, 2016