The Latino population in the U.S. is exploding but leaders say when it comes to college, their students are falling behind.
Now Christian colleges are organizing, saying they want to meet the needs of these students who may feel more at home at a Christian college than anywhere else.
Christian college administrators and presidents recently gathered at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., to find new ways to reach out to them.
The Alliance for Hispanic Christian Education Summit event was sponsored by the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, America's largest Hispanic Christian organization.
Understanding the Numbers
U.S. Census data shows 47 million Hispanics currently live in the U.S. By the year 2050 that number will rise to 100 million -- a quarter of the U.S. population.
Already, one in five schoolchildren are Hispanic. In California, Latinos now make up a little more than 50 percent of the state's public school student population.
"When we see the demographic growing so rapidly, we know it will change the face of America," Regent University President Carlos Campo said.
Educators like Campo say the issue is that many Latinos are not pursuing higher education. Among college-aged Latinos ages 18 to 24, only one-third are enrolled in college compared to 42 percent of all young adults.
More than Demographics
Concerns about education have become one of the top priorities for NHCLC.
"Many are asking, 'How can we trust the future of our nation to a demographic, to a community that has issues of education,'" NHCLC president Samuel Rodriguez explained.
Summit organizers and participants emphasized that not only are the numbers driving them to consider Hispanic recruitment, but core Christian beliefs motivate them as well.
"It's about expanding God's kingdom and the way in which we see God's kingdom reflected in a variety of different church traditions, a variety of ethnicities, and a variety of ways to view the Scripture," Chip Pollard, president of John Brown University, explained.
"This is a mission," Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary provost Frank James added. "This isn't just about demographics. This isn't just about capturing a rising segment of the evangelical community. It's about reaching out to everyone."
Acting on this vision is the challenge. A recent Pew survey revealed nine out of 10 Latinos feel getting a college education is important for success, but only about half of that number said they themselves plan to get a college degree.
Christina Davila, 19, is one student fighting the odds. She chose Regent University last summer because she wanted to attend a Christian college. But her mom, who is single, is unable to help financially.
"She told me I could go to Regent, but I would have to do it by myself," Davila recalled
So far Davila is making it, thanks to her part-time job and a mix of loans and grants. But she's not alone.
Overcoming Financial Responsibility
For many Hispanics wanting to attend college, the main problem is financial pressure.
A Pew Hispanic Center survey found about 75 percent of respondents ages 16 to 25 who cut their education short during or right after high school did so because they had to support their family.
To overcome that hurdle, educators at the summit emphasized how college-bound students and their families must adopt a certain attitude.
"It's a mindset. I think that's a critical piece -- establishing early on that you will be attending college," Campo explained. "It's accessible. It's affordable and it's a part of your future."
Fit for Christian Education
One advantage Christian colleges are realizing they can promote with Hispanic students is a faith-based learning environment that values both tradition and home.
"They're our kind of students," said Paul Corts, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. "They're family-oriented. Our campuses are family oriented. They have a great work ethic. We appreciate that. That's part of the Christian work ethic."
Another advantage Christian college leaders say they want to leverage is their relationships with the local church.
"We're activating 30,000 churches to address the issue of high school graduation and college enrollment from the bully pulpit," Rodriguez said. "[We're asking] can every Hispanic evangelical church in America form a partnership with a high school in that community."
Oral Roberts University recently opened a Hispanic center to provide a gathering place for students and family members.
"We know that the future is going to be huge, and so we're wanting to invest now for the future," said Dan Guajardo, ORU vice president for student development.
The overall goal is to find ways to recruit and retain today's Hispanic students so they can give back and influence a new generation for Christ.
"This is the absolute right thing to do," Campo added. "Because if we're not recruiting these students today, we're going to miss a generation of students and that impact will be profound and long lasting."