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On Hispanic Education – Progress and Stagnation: 25 Years Of Hispanic Achievement

There is an urgent need to understand and address the gap in Hispanic male achievement.

A 25th anniversary is a good time to take stock of where we have been and what kind of progress we have made in equalizing opportunity. A little more than 25 years ago, I published an article entitled “Passing Through the Eye of the Needle” in the Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences. It dealt with two topics that were rare in the academic discourse at the time: (1) Hispanic women, specifically Chicanas, (2) who were also high achievers.

Around the mid-1970s academics were beginning to discover the tremendous achievement gaps between Hispanics and Whites, but studies almost all dealt with Hispanics as a group. Not much attention was being paid to females in the group. Since women were just starting to find their collective voice in the 1970s and making their case for equality in education and the workplace, this is perhaps not shocking. But, it took a while for the general public and for policymakers to pay attention to the differences that existed not only between men and women, but between White women and those of color. In 1982, this discourse was still a novelty.

At the same time, virtually all of the literature on Hispanics and education dealt with the problems, impediments and barriers to achievement. In a sense this was natural and warranted because it was important to call attention to the gross inequities in educational opportunity and to try to provide both explanations and solutions for the phenomenon. However, the literature rather quickly became a litany of horrors that seemed almost without solution short of a revolution. I thought it might make sense to change the discourse from liabilities to assets and look at what “went right” when some members of a marginalized group were able to buck the trends and succeed. Hence, the study of Chicanas from very low-income, low educational backgrounds (the average mother had a fourthgrade education) who had excelled in school and completed a doctoral degree from a very selective university. What accounted for this extraordinary success? And what could we learn from them to help other young Chicanas?

Twenty-five years ago, Hispanics were about 7.5 percent of the total population, and the average education level for Hispanics of Mexican origin (about two-thirds of the Hispanic population) was ninth grade; for Whites it was almost a year beyond 12th grade. The year that “Passing Through the Eye of the Needle” was published, Latinas under 24 years of age had just overtaken Latinos with respect to high school graduation. Latinas were just beginning to complete bachelor’s degrees at a slightly higher rate than Hispanic males as well — 2.3 percent of all degrees awarded went to the males versus 2.4 percent for females. But they had not yet caught up with males with respect to doctorates. Hispanic males held only 1 percent of all doctoral degrees awarded nationally in 1984, while Latinas garnered a mere 0.7 percent.

By any account, these highly educated young women were a rarity. How had they done it? Put succinctly, they “out-maled” the males. They had almost all foregone marriage and family during the long years of study, and of the couples that did marry, only one marriage survived. To prove that they were worthy of admission to selective programs, and mentorship by (mostly male) faculty, they had been universally good students — always. They had stellar academic records virtually from kindergarten. This was different for the males to whom they were compared — among the males a good number had faltered and had to find their way — with the help of mentors who saw promise in them despite their less than stellar academic performance.

Much has changed in 25 years. Today, Chicanas consistently out-perform Chicanos at every level of schooling. Most recent statistics (2006) show that 73 percent of Latinas 18-24 years of age have graduated from high school compared to just 63 percent of Latinos, and 4.2 percent of all bachelor’s degrees go to females versus 2.6 percent for males. At the level of the doctoral degree, 1.7 percent of all Ph.D.s go to women versus 1.4 percent to males. Similar discrepancies between males and females exist for all ethnic groups, though not quite as starkly for Whites and somewhat more so for Blacks. Looking at the numbers, it is evident that males have not lost ground academically so much as females have gained ground. Once the glass ceiling began to be removed, women started moving into the void that had existed for them at the top. And they now do it without the same personal sacrifices as earlier generations.

While it is certainly cause for celebration that Latinas are making progress, it is nonetheless tremendously worrisome that Latino males have made so little and that the group as a whole continues to be so seriously underrepresented. Today, 15 percent of the population is Hispanic (though one in five K- 12 public students is) and yet both males and females are receiving fewer than 7 percent of the college degrees, with males receiving only about 60 percent as many as females. It is now Hispanic males who seem to be struggling to pass through the biblical eye of the needle. There is an urgent need to understand and address this new demographic challenge, for the sake of the men, the women, and the nation.

— Dr. Patricia Gándara is co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at the University of California, Los Angeles and a professor of education at UCLA.

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