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The Clock is Ticking

With nearly 13 million Hispanics in the United States under the age of 18, America’s higher education system is bracing for an influx of new students.

By Kristin Bagnato

Hispanics are the largest minority group in the United States, and the recent influx of Hispanics has turned some states into “majority-minority” populations. Texas has announced that it has joined California, New Mexico and Hawaii in the club, with a 50.2 percent minority population.

According to March 2002 U.S. Census Department data, there are nearly 37.5 million Hispanics in the United States. That’s one in eight across the country. While the survey also found that two in five Hispanics in the United States were born somewhere else, that statistic will change drastically over the next generation, when the 34.4 percent of Hispanics who are under age 18 grow up and raise families.

So where does all this number-crunching get us? To postsecondary education. That 34.4 percent of Hispanic children in elementary and secondary schools now will soon be old enough for college. But will college be ready for them? If not, an enormous number of Hispanic youth will go underserved, which will surely have far-reaching consequences as these children grow up and join the work force.

Hispanic students often struggle with lower incomes and attend schools that are underfunded and ill-equipped to handle the language and cultural challenges inherently associated with immigrant populations. Regardless, Hispanic families are eager for their children to go on to attain the highest level of education possible, but lack of communication between schools and families can lead to confusion about necessary test scores, funding options and application procedures.

With the U.S. Hispanic population historically concentrated in California, Texas, Florida, New York, New Mexico and Arizona, these states have more of the onus to be ahead of the pack in educating their Hispanic students. And with nearly half (45.6 percent) of Hispanics living in city centers, according to the census data, city colleges are pressured even more to cater to these students. But with funding shortages and cutbacks, colleges are already struggling to provide the services these students need to succeed.

Are Community Colleges Filling the Bill?
While community colleges with their flexible schedules and low tuitions seem like a good fit for many Hispanic students seeking post-secondary education, research shows that these schools have low graduation rates for Hispanics.

“Hispanic youth benefit from going to more selective colleges and universities because these institutions often do a better job in getting their Hispanic undergraduates to graduate than less selective institutions,” reads a 2004 report by the Pew Hispanic Trust, which analyzed the National Educational Longitudinal Survey, developed by the U.S. Department of Education — one of the largest and most representative data sets available on education trends.

The study went on to state, “White youth beginning at community colleges are nearly twice as likely as Hispanic youth beginning at community colleges to finish a bachelor’s degree.”

The factors that lead to this outcome, however, are not as clear-cut as attending a selective school and being encouraged throughout the educational process. Factors that many advocates have come to know all too well also affect students’ performance.

Some elements that set Hispanic students apart include: “Delayed enrollment in college, greater financial responsibility for family members and living with family while in college rather than in campus housing,” the report found.

The irony in all this is that previous research has found that as a group, Hispanic families have enormous respect for education and are eager for their children to attain as high a level of education as possible.

Dr. Maria Estela Zarate, the director of education policy research at the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Southern California, digs deeper into the NELS data, explaining that while the data set is one of the biggest and covers the most time — 12 years from the first questionnaire in 1988 to the last in 2000 — those factors also lead to much missing data.

“NELS had a hard time retaining students, and there’s the possibility they may have lost a lot of student data,” she says. A lack of participation in later waves of data gathering could also make the NELS data less reliable to interpret, Zarate adds.

So taking the NELS data and subsequent studies in that context, are Hispanic students really underperforming at community colleges?
“It depends if the students have the intention of transferring. [Pew researchers] assumed that most students have the intention of transferring, when that may not be,” Zarate says. She also cites the crowded nature of community colleges — by being open to everyone it’s nearly impossible to serve those who may need the most help.

“Community colleges provide an avenue for students to seek a college education, but too frequently some of those students do not transfer up to a four-year degree program, and sometimes don’t even complete an associate’s degree,” says Dr. Antonio R. Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. “There is a wide range of performance outcomes on the part of the community colleges concerning their ability to retain and graduate Hispanic students.”

He adds that two-year institutions that were more successful in graduating Hispanic students tended to have the academic support services many Hispanic students require, as well as strong articulation agreements with four-year institutions.

Zarate clarifies the problem further: “Community colleges are thought of as being open-access — so if you define ‘access’ as being able to register, than yes. But if you’re talking about ‘access to classes that you need,’ then community colleges struggle with that. It’s really because they’re so underfunded. They educate most of our students, but do it with the fewest resources.”

One reason many Hispanic community college students need the support services can be traced back to their elementary and high school years.

“More than two in five Hispanics aged 25 and older have not graduated from high school,” the 2002 census report found. And while that number is expected to go down in the coming years, it symbolizes the problem.
“Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of Hispanic students in K-12 education are concentrated in low-income schools that lack the rigorous curriculum and experienced faculty to offer a high-quality education,” Flores says. “These schools’ dropout rates are exceedingly high, and conversely, the graduation and college entrance rates are much too low. Because of their underfunding and scarcity of resources, these schools do not usually have adequate counseling and orientation services to help students plan for a college education.

“The main challenges for these students include getting early awareness and support services, ensuring their parents are partners in the education of their children … and setting high education aims and expectations for themselves, despite all of the disadvantages they may face in their schools and homes,” Flores says.
Progress Begins at Home

If you want Hispanic students to complete their education, start with the parents. That’s where the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute is focusing much of its efforts.

“First-generation Latino parents are less likely to have access to the information they need to prepare their children for college,” Dr. Harry P. Pachon, president of the institute, said in June at a Washington conference. “Because 57 percent of adult Latinos in the United States are first-generation immigrants, it is essential that sincere efforts be made to reach out to these parents.”

The institute’s 2002 study on the role of parents in college enrollment, “College Knowledge: What Latino Parents Need to Know and Why They Don’t Know It,” outlined the problems Hispanic families face in preparing their children for college but also found an overwhelming desire for their children to attend postsecondary institutions.

“The greater proportion of Hispanic families — some of those parents are working two and three jobs to make sure their kids succeed,” says Dr. Jesus “Jess” Carreon, chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District.

So if the parents want it and the kids want it, why isn’t it happening in greater numbers? Hispanic students attend postsecondary institutions at the same rates as White students, but “young Hispanic undergraduates are half as likely as White undergraduates to finish a bachelor’s degree,” found the Pew Hispanic Center in their study, “Latino Youth Finishing College: The Role of Selective Pathways.”

While private and public groups are working to make sure Hispanic families know about the options for their children and the support services available to them, they can only do so much without funding, or worse, in the face of funding cuts. For fiscal 2006, the president planned to eliminate funding for nearly $575 million in education resources for low-income and minority families. Congress declined to follow all of the administration’s recommendations, but they did eliminate the dropout prevention program entirely, as well as the “Even Start” program, a family literacy program that previously was funded with an annual budget of $225 million. 

Income and Financial Aid
A large percentage of Hispanic college students are low-income. And low incomes generate the need to hold multiple jobs or support multiple people. Low-income also doesn’t mix well with ever-increasing college costs. In addition to traditional federal financial aid programs, there are programs targeted specifically to first-generation, lower-income students, such as TRIO, but as always, there’s never enough funding.
“Although TRIO and other government-funded programs are making an important difference in the education of tens of thousands of low-income and minority students, they only represent a minute proportion of the total who are eligible for their support but cannot get it because of inadequate federal funding,” Flores says.

As students regardless of ethnicity know, even with financial aid, the cost of college can be insurmountable.

According to Carreon, the Dallas County Community College District is always looking for creative ways to ease the financial burden for students, but when the district isn’t getting more money, there’s only so much that can be done to help.

“We’ll probably be flat again for this year’s budget, which really means a cut because of increasing costs,” Carreon says.

But as anyone in the field knows, community colleges are masters of innovation. So when the district realized that many students were having difficulty physically getting to school, they worked with local public transit to give free passes to students. But the bus system is a business like any other, and they’re considering cutting a route that goes through one of the campuses because of lack of ridership. Sometimes, it’s a case of one step forward, two steps back.
As always, the clarion call is more money to help more students. And Carreon worries about the future if the government doesn’t start addressing these problems — soon.

“I think that demographic changes our nation is experiencing right now also are causing this country to go through a metamorphosis. In Texas, we have a window of about 15 to 20 years to make changes in how we educate our students,” Carreon says. “Unless we educate all students in grades K-16, we will face more than an issue of economic reality. It’s much bigger. It’s about creating wealth, as well as building and sustaining communities, not only in Texas but also across the entire country.”

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