MARYVILLE, Tenn. -- Driving along U.S. 411N, flanked by rolling green hills and slow-moving cows, it seems surprising to hear a deejay on the FM dial breathlessly announcing a merengue show in nearby Knoxville -- in Spanish.
In fact, Tennessee -- like fellow Appalachian states Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia -- is home to one of the fastest-growing Latino populations in the country, much younger on average than the region's non-Hispanic white and black populations, and with larger families.
This hasn't escaped the attention of the region's colleges, most of which have drawn heavily on the area's non-Hispanic white population for their students. But that population is shrinking, said Deborah Santiago, the vice president for policy at Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit agency that advocates for Latinos in higher education.
Attracting and retaining Latinos won't be easy. Limited experience with college, lower household incomes and other factors have made them less likely to enroll in and succeed at college. But as universities across the country contend with flat and even declining enrollments, they're starting to go after the biggest growth market: Latinos.
Recruiting Latinos to college is "one of those wonderful situations where you can do the right thing morally as well as financially," said Irene Burgess, the vice president for academic programs at the Appalachian College Association.
The association -- a group of 36 small, private, largely faith-based schools in Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia -- has given small grants to eight member colleges aimed at helping them attract and retain Latinos.
Already the largest and fastest-growing minority group, Latinos will account for 60 percent of population growth through 2050, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Yet they have the lowest education attainment levels of any group in the United States.
Raising those levels will have a nationwide impact, said Ms. Santiago, whose organization has provided some technical assistance to the Appalachian colleges.
The Appalachian region may be only the first to attack this issue with a concerted effort.
Vandy Kemp, the vice president and dean of students at Maryville College, said she'd had an "aha" moment when she saw projections that showed the population of non-Hispanic white public high school graduates shrinking by 15 percent nationwide through 2023 and that of Latinos increasing by 88 percent.
Maryville, one of the South's oldest colleges, founded in 1819, got one of the grants to increase its enrollment of Latinos. The college has launched what it calls the Villamaria initiative, which has included hosting first-ever events involving local Latinos and starting a Latino Student Alliance.
The college's admissions director has purchased a list of students who identified themselves as Hispanic on their SAT tests and live within 500 miles of the campus. Administrators think the college has the resources to help Latinos who need financial aid. The college is also developing plans to endow scholarships for immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally.
Jose Perez, a junior majoring in psychology, was one of 27 Latinos among the college's 1,168 students when Maryville applied for the grant that launched its Hispanic student outreach effort. Now he has a business card that identifies him as a "Maryville College Ambassador." He said he hoped that speaking to the parents of prospective Latino students in their native language made them feel more welcome. As for the students, he hopes it means something for them "to see someone like themselves."
Mr. Perez is typical of most of Maryville's students in that he comes from a town nearby: Mosheim, about 80 miles to the northeast. He said his family never thought he could go to a college such as Maryville because of its cost -- nearly $32,000 this year. But after scholarships and loans, his out-of-pocket expenses this year will be $5,000, he said.
Mr. Perez said he recognized the economic importance to colleges of attracting more Hispanic students, but he's taken to his role as a sort of calling: "I care about helping Hispanics."