Nataly Morales Villa is just one of thousands of new students from Hispanic immigrant households who have enrolled at the University of North Georgia in recent years, particularly at the school’s Gainesville campus.
But her reasons for enrolling may not be the same as her peers, and so Villa is on a quest to discover just what opportunities and advantages are luring Hispanic students to UNG.
This isn’t just a matter of satisfying curiosity, however.
Rather, it’s an effort to identify the unique needs of this growing percentage of the student body and come up with ways to address those needs.
When Villa was accepted to the prestigious McNair Scholars Program, a federal Department of Education initiative to prepare undergraduate college students for doctoral studies through research and academic inquiry, the idea to survey Hispanic students came to mind.
“I realized every year I see more and more Hispanic students,” Villa said.
And the data backs up what she’s observed on campus.
Hispanic enrollment across all UNG campuses has nearly tripled since 2014 and now accounts for 13.3 percent of the total student population of 19,722.
Hispanic students alone grew to number 2,629 in 2018 from just 879 in 2014 with 1,739 now attending classes at the Gainesville campus.
These trends reflect the wider community, where 40.3 percent of Gainesville residents are Hispanic and 28.6 percent countywide, according to census figures.
Meanwhile, one in four Hall County residents is under the age of 18.
Part of the answer, then, for the dramatic increase in Hispanic enrollment stems from the fact that the children of first-generation immigrants, like Villa herself, are now coming of age and attending college.
Many of these students are the first in their families to ever receive a high school diploma and pursue higher education.
All these numbers add up to one thing: “It is highly probable that UNG will become a Hispanic-Serving Institution in the next 10 years,” Villa said.
According to the Higher Education Act, Hispanic-Serving Institutions are degree-granting schools with Hispanics accounting for at least 25 percent of all full-time undergraduate enrollment.
There are 472 such institutions (14 percent of all higher educational institutes) in the United States and Puerto Rico, up from 311 in 2010.
The schools account for 64 percent of all Hispanic undergraduate admissions, or about 1.8 million in all, across the nation.
Dalton State College is the only Hispanic-Serving Institution in Georgia.
Receiving such a designation comes with many potential benefits for Hispanic students, including access to additional scholarships and new curriculum resources.
The trend lines are also a compelling reason for UNG to continue exploring how to broaden student services to meet the demands of this cut of the student body, Villa said.
The survey she plans to conduct this summer of at least 50 Hispanic students attending UNG aims to uncover what factors led them to enroll.
Was it the school’s affordability? Its proximity to home and family life as a commuter school? The services already available on campus?
“If I can get more students than that, that would be great,” Villa said.
UNG already supports Hispanic students through initiatives such as the College Assistance Migrant Program, a freshman year scholarship program for the children of migrant workers; the Goizueta Foundation Scholarship, which helps low-income, Spanish-fluent Hispanics attend college; and through the on-campus Latino Student Association and Multicultural Student Affairs office.
But with many Hispanic students coming from low-income households, opportunities for financial assistance, more diverse faculty hiring and other initiatives are critical to serving this demographic now and in the future, Villa said.
According to the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, 29.5 percent of Hispanics 25 and over have not completed high school as of 2017, compared to 5.9 percent of non-Hispanic whites. And just 17.2 percent of Hispanics have a bachelor’s degree, as of 2017, compared to 38.1 percent for non-Hispanic whites.
Dr. Michallene McDaniel, an associate professor of sociology and human services, has been a big influence on Villa, who is hopeful about the outcome of her survey.
“I really want to credit her because she helped me out a lot,” Villa said.
Villa plans to share the survey results when her work is complete, and potentially make recommendations about how the school can continue to support and foster Hispanic enrollment growth.
“I really do want to pitch it to the administration,” Villa said.