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A Quiet Crisis

A Quiet Crisis
Conference highlights higher education disparities between Latino men and women
By Patrick Harris

Los Angeles
The higher college enrollment and graduation rates of women versus men has long been considered a crisis in the Black community. But the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute recently addressed a similar, less well-documented, educational disparity within the Latino community.

“The Unacknowledged Crisis: Latino Males and Higher Education,” a daylong conference held in October, drew 560 attendees, including scholars and public officials. The conference was aimed at exploring reasons behind the lack of college degrees among Latino men and identifying ways to combat the trend.

“Most of the research is based solely on race, it was our goal to bring out several hundred people to deal with the gender inequality of Latinos in higher education,” says Dr. Harry P. Pachon, president of the institute and professor of public policy at the University of Southern California. 

Approximately 20 percent more Hispanic women go to college than men, leading almost inevitably to more female graduates. Pachon says the disparity can be attributed to factors beyond culture. For example, 80 percent to 90 percent of elementary and secondary school teachers are female, and consequently serve as role models for Hispanic girls. Pachon also notes that many Hispanic students and their families do not understand the process of getting into or paying for college.

“When we found out that many parents didn’t know the first tool on how to finance a college education, Sallie Mae started a 90-city bus tour, going to barrios, promoting that there are loans, scholarships and grants available,” Pachon says. The effort by the Sallie Mae Foundation was prompted by the institute’s 2002 report “College Knowledge: What Latino Parents Need to Know and Why They Don’t Know It.”

A Million-Dollar Decision

Young Hispanic and African-American men are often lured into lower-paying job fields by the promise of an immediate, steady income, many of which don’t hold the same interest for young women, Pachon says.
“Latino males have more employment opportunities with a high school [diploma], or after they are 17 years old, in body shops or manual labor that are not open to females, so the females see the value of a college education,” Pachon says. “But it’s really a shame because the difference between a college graduate and a non-college graduate is a million dollars over a lifetime. So it is a million-dollar decision for the individual.”

Dr. Aida Hurtado, professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, struck a similar note in her conference presentation, “The Universal Importance of Gender Equity.”

“Too often, there is a similar pattern. Young women overcome poverty to excel at school, while their brothers drop out, find poorly paying jobs and sometimes get into trouble with the law,” Hurtado said.

To illustrate her point, Hurtado told the story of a Latino family from Santa Cruz. The daughter, one of Hurtado’s students, completed a bachelor’s degree and later earned a master’s degree in counseling. While the young woman was advancing professionally, her brother was sinking into the gang culture in their neighborhood. He was eventually killed in a gang-related shooting.

According to Hurtado, Latino boys and girls face similar obstacles, but cultural factors also come into play. For example, Latino mothers tend to be strict with their teenage daughters while, in many cases, the sons are given free rein. 

 “Young women, the sisters of these young men, have very strong curfews, end up having a lot of responsibilities at home, a lot of tasks assigned to them. And if they do not do them, they are accountable,” Hurtado said.

She and other presenters at the conference agreed that mentoring, along with academic preparation programs such as the Puente Project, which aims to increase the number of underserved students who enroll in four-year universities, (see Diverse, Oct. 20) could lead to greater success in school for Latino students.

Through Another Lens

A panel discussion attempted to gain insight and perspective by examining how the Black community has approached its gender disparity problems. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, men made up only 34 percent of Black college degree recipients in the 2001-2002 academic year. The discussion, “A View Through Another Lens: What Can We Learn from the African-American Academic Experience?,” hoped to find common ground to address the disparity issue.

Aaron J. Alexander Thomas III, the educational director of the National Urban League, said, “In 13 states, there are more men of color incarcerated than in colleges and universities. The under-utilization and the over incarceration of men has a lasting impact on our community’s ability to grow and to prosper and to sustain itself.”

 Thomas noted that young Black men often try to emulate entertainers or professional athletes, while women stay in school and get an education.

“A Jay-Z or some professional athlete in football or basketball is not the norm,” he said. “I think those opportunities are slim. But when you start talking about our doctors and our lawyers and those who can really contribute to the larger society, we have to have folks who are obtaining college degrees and going on to do graduate work and research.”

According to Thomas and other presenters, the Latino community can learn some lessons from the African-American experience. For example, smaller learning communities, with high aspirations and expectations, have shown promise in Black communities. In examining the research, the smaller learning communities promote a college preparatory culture in which Black students learn to encourage each other’s academic success while retaining a strong ethnic identity. “We cannot be episodic, we need to apply pressure in the areas that it can make the most impact,” Thomas said. Community and faith-based organizations are at the forefront of many success stories within the Black community.

Thomas urged those in attendance to not only share information at the conference, but to remain steadfast on the path to reverse the situation.

Closing the conference, Pachon said the institute hopes to spark a discussion on the issue of gender inequality within the Latino community as it relates higher education.

“Our institute has been around for over 20 years, and our mission is to bring the Latino community not only information, but policy-relevant information that we all can act on to create change.”

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