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HACU Conference Stirs Debate on Retention, Graduation Among Hispanic Students


Educators, researchers and advocates gathered last week at the Educational Testing Center to set a research agenda for Hispanics in higher education. Nearly 60 people turned out to address the major obstacles to higher education success for Hispanics students.

The daylong event featured four presenters, each highlighting a different concern regarding the Hispanic achievement gap.

Dr. Amaury Nora of the University of Texas at Houston began with an overview of research, theory and practice of Hispanics in higher education. He delineated the “pull factors” that hinder college retention for Hispanic students, including family obligations, off-campus employment and commuting difficulties.

The second session was led by Dr. Victor B. Saenz of the Higher Education Research Institute. He focused on the impact of federally designated Hispanic-Serving Institutions on academic politics.

“There is a higher education debate between diversity and excellence,” Saenz said, asking the audience if they believed the two were mutually exclusive. The audience concluded that, despite some of the political rhetoric, they were not. One audience member stood up to quote former Yale University president A. Bartlett Giamatti: “This institution cannot be excellent if it is not diverse.”

“We have to be careful with the expectation that Latino students can finish in five or six years,” said Dr. Watson Scott Swail, president and CEO of the Educational Policy Institute and the third presenter at the event.

Swail cautioned that the longer it takes to graduate, the more hurdles students face, which can dissuade them from finishing college. Or, as he put it, “Life happens.”

But the primary focus of Swail’s presentation was finding ways to involve more Hispanic students in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The United States imports highly skilled workers in these fields, he said, yet there are many American college students — specifically Hispanics — who are simply not encouraged to pursue these degrees.

Dr. Ana Maria Villegas, of Montclair State University, concluded the conference with her research on Hispanics in the teaching profession.

“If we want to improve the outcome of Hispanics in higher ed, we must back up and look at the teachers,” she said.

She said well-prepared Hispanic teachers could potentially improve the academic outcomes of Hispanic students and diminish the achievement gap. In the past 24 years, the number of Hispanic students in public elementary and secondary schools increased by 54 percent, while the number of Hispanic teachers increased only 1.4 percent.

“This is a problem,” Villegas said, “because Hispanic students need Hispanic role models.”

— By Kerri Allen


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