Taking it to the Next LevelAs the Hispanic population in America booms, Hispanic representation on American college campuses has so far been a bust. But educators say community colleges are uniquely positioned to bridge the gap.By Kristina LaneTwo Hispanic men in Claremont, Calif., were chatting recently about their children. One beamed with pride as he talked about his teenage daughter’s success in school. “She’s getting straight A’s in high school. And I’m going to send her to a community college,” he said. The other man, who heads a California-based policy group that studies issues affecting Hispanic communities, was stunned.
“He was going to send her to a two-year school because he didn’t realize she could go to a university,” recalls Dr. Harry Pachon, president of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute (TRPI).
The man didn’t know the difference between a two- and four-year institution, Pachon said — a mistake emblematic of the confusion many Hispanic parents have about American higher education.
Pachon said this lack of parental awareness is one of the driving forces behind a bigger problem: While the proportion of Hispanic youths in the U.S. population is surging, their numbers on college campuses — particularly at four-year schools — are tiny.
According to Pachon and other higher education officials, a large measure of blame for this disparity can be placed on a breakdown in communication among educational institutions, the students and their parents.
For now, they say, community colleges may be a small part of this problem, but they’re potentially a huge part of its solution, because the majority of Hispanic students in higher education are enrolled there. Educators say two-year schools need to market themselves to Hispanic youths as a stepping stone to a bachelor’s degree, which has become almost a prerequisite in America for professional success.Population Without Representation
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of college-age Hispanic students in America has swelled prodigiously in recent years, and it continues to do so.
The Census Bureau has also reported that the educational attainment levels of Hispanic students rank well below those of non-Hispanic White students. More than one-quarter of Hispanics 25 years and older had less than a ninth-grade education. Only 4 percent of non-Hispanic Whites have so little education. More than 20 percent of the non-Hispanic White population has at least a bachelor’s degree. But only one-tenth of the Hispanic population has earned a baccalaureate.
Antonia Kilpatrick, assistant director of admissions and records at Tarrant County College District in Fort Worth, Texas, said students who don’t finish high school suffer the biggest losses.
“Some of those students, we see them later on, possibly when they’ve been out in the work force 10 years and they realize they won’t get promoted, that they are going nowhere,” she says.
And while 53 percent of Hispanic high school graduates are qualified to attend a four-year institution, only 31 percent actually do, according to “Education = Success: Empowering Hispanic Youth and Adults,” a report by the Educational Testing Service. The report also says that only 27 percent of Hispanics transfer from two-year to four-year institutions.
By 2015, if these trends continue, about 550,000 college-age Hispanics will not be found on any campus.Incommunicado
So why aren’t more Hispanics making use of higher education? College officials say although the reasons are many, most fall under one umbrella — lack of communication.
Kilpatrick said community colleges can’t assume high school counselors and teachers know what two-year schools are.
“When I speak to rooms full of high school teachers and counselors, about 50 to 70 people, I always ask, ‘How many of you know anything about community colleges?’ ” Kilpatrick says. “And each time, only about 1 to 3 people raise their hands. The teachers don’t recognize community colleges because they don’t know anything about them.”
This is a real problem, especially for Hispanic students, Kilpatrick said, because most of them launch their higher education careers at community colleges, which are more affordable and accessible than four-year colleges. If their high school advisers are only talking to students about four-year schools and four-year schools are beyond their means, she said, the students are losing out.
Nationally, about half of all Hispanics in higher education are enrolled in two-year schools, according to the ETS report. That number is higher in states with larger Hispanic populations, such as California, where community colleges enroll 80 percent of all Hispanics in higher education.
Pachon, of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, said lines of communication between colleges and Hispanic parents also need to be opened.
A recent survey conducted by TRPI measured Hispanic parents’ basic knowledge about higher education. The survey found that, while 97 percent of the parents expected their children to attend college, 66 percent incorrectly answered half of the questions, such as whether there were any differences between a two- and four-year school.
“So much work needs to be done by all levels of education — K-12, community colleges, four-year schools — to help this communication breakdown, because Hispanic parents don’t know enough about American higher education,” Pachon says.
Dr. Herlinda Coronado, president of North Lake College in Irving, Texas, agreed with Pachon, and said parents who aren’t armed with knowledge can’t help their children.
“Many don’t know because they have never applied to college (themselves). So it’s the challenge of how we can get them to know what steps to take, to navigate the system, to help their children be successful,” she says.More Roadblocks
Another part of the communication gap stems from language barriers.
Dr. Rosa Perez, president of Cañada College in Redwood City, Calif., said language is critical for a cohort of students who are often called “Generation 1.5” These students either immigrate here when they are very young or are born here, and spend most of their K-12 years in American schools. They learn some Spanish at home and some English in school, Perez said, but they end up being fluent in neither language.
“The statewide tests have led (K-12) teachers to focus more on content rather than learning processes” so the students aren’t gaining a firm grasp of English, Perez said. “And that’s the largest segment of the Hispanic population we are receiving at community colleges in California.”
Perez said this problem is something most educators are just beginning to grapple with, and that bringing these students up to speed requires an entirely new way of teaching.
“It is not just about teaching English to Generation 1.5. They haven’t learned certain things, like how to summarize ideas … we are still just trying to sort out the best approaches for these students,” she says.
Performing feats like these are difficult for community colleges, Perez said, especially because their resources are so skimpy. She said colleges need substantial financial backing from local governments, instead of the bits and pieces they currently receive through grants, to help fund more faculty-training programs.
“There’s too much emphasis on training teachers in technology, and very little in helping teachers deal with Hispanics,” she says. “We need to build into the early stages of faculty orientation very specific training … (for) working with these student populations.”
Dr. Diana Fuentes-Michel, vice chancellor for governmental relations and external affairs at the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, agreed with Perez.
Fuentes-Michel said colleges need help so they can provide students with better resources, including academic help, counseling and financial aid. She said the student-counselor ratio should be reduced so counselors can keep better track of Hispanic students’ success.
“If we had that, we’d be able to get students through (college) more quickly and more successfully,” she says.
Fuentes-Michel also said there are too many part-time instructors working at community colleges. Their salaries and benefits need to be improved, and some should be given full-time status so they can devote more time to the students, she said.
Bucking a Bad Trend
Correcting these problems is a daunting task, but concerned educators say there are a number of possible solutions.
A good way to start, according to Dr. Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, is with articulation agreements between community colleges and four-year institutions. With more of these programs in place, transfer rates would increase among Hispanic students, Flores said.
“It has to be done with a clear sense of commitment to long-term solutions and not quick fixes,” he says. “Many students who come to community colleges don’t come with the intent of even going beyond a two-year degree. We need to change their mindset.”
Flores said colleges also need more financial support. Community colleges get about half of what other institutions get, he said, but they need more to help underserved populations such as Hispanics.
“We are looking to the Bush administration and Congress to help. There has been, for years, neglect of Hispanic-serving institutions,” he says. “But national leadership has the ability to set the tenor for other levels of government.”
Fuentes-Michel said K-12 institutions must prepare Hispanic students better, specifically with more instruction in English and math.
She said California launched an initiative in 1997 to improve the English skills of elementary school students, requiring them to be able to read by age 9. The state has also improved the quality of teachers, textbooks and other educational materials. Since the program started, she said, all students — including Hispanics, who make up 15 percent of the K-12 population — have improved their skills.
This will prove critical for these students in the future, as admission to four-year schools grows increasingly competitive, Fuentes-Michel said.
Dr. Alfredo G. de los Santos Jr., a research professor at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., said high school programs should be as rigorous as possible to prepare Hispanic students for college.
“If I had it my way, all high schools would require four years of English and math, ending with calculus; three years of college, lab-based science; four years of a foreign language and humanities,” he says.
Cañada College’s Perez said another way to increase Hispanic transfer rates is by requiring Hispanics to attend community colleges full time — and by giving them the resources to do so.
“I think going part time is a mistake. They need to be registered early out of high school, and given sufficient financial aid so they can go to community colleges full time,” she says. Without the distractions of work, she said, they could focus on their studies and achieve more academically.
Dire Straits Ahead?
Higher education officials say some of these solutions are more viable than others, but they agree that if the proportion of Hispanic students in higher education doesn’t increase, it will be detrimental for the entire country.
“We are facing a labor crisis in the United States. In a little over a decade, there will be a massive retirement of baby boomers — who will take their place?” says Pachon of TRPI. “We really have a problem facing America’s competitiveness in the world.”
Pachon said the burgeoning Hispanic population of 18- to 24-year-olds should be tapped to fill the work-force holes created by retiring baby boomers.
De los Santos of Arizona State said he sees a bleak forecast for Hispanic students. What most concerns him is the lack of support for higher education, especially from the federal government. “Congress must take action, but given the focus of the administration on K-12, as seen with the ‘No Child Left Behind’ program, I don’t think anything’s going to happen,” he says. “The reauthorization of (the) Higher Education (Act) is coming up, and Congress isn’t even talking about it.”
Adding to the problem, he said, is the anemic economy, which has forced state and local governments to squeeze higher education budgets even more.
“So as a consequence, the institutions get money to operate by increasing tuition. A large number of states have increased tuition, including the states where a majority of Hispanics are: California, Arizona, Texas, Florida,” he says.
De los Santos said he expects the financial predicament to get worse. “It’s a dreary, dreary future. And that’s when Hispanic students are going to be coming up (into higher education), in the next five years,” he says.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com