Adapting institutions to better serve Latino students is not without criticism. Some in higher education believe Latino students should assimilate rather than have institutions adapt to meet their strengths and needs. These critics say our higher education system is the best in the world, and thus, rather than “forcing” an institution to change, students should assimilate to our higher education system.
At Excelencia, we have made an extensive effort to identify and categorize institutional practices that have been adapted with evidence of effectiveness for improving Latino access and completion of a higher education. On our revamped Web site we have made accessible a searchable database with a collection of these practices in a growing number of institutions.
One of the more innovative and inexpensive institutional practices I have highlighted in the past is the offering of a class on name pronunciation for faculty development. This practice grew from institutional leaders’ recognition that the representation of Latino and Hmong students on their campuses increased and the leaders’ genuine commitment to pronounce students’ names correctly at graduation. Beyond the positive effects at graduation from families and friends celebrating their students’ achievements, institutional representatives noted two additional benefits: 1) faculty became more aware of the diversity in their institution; 2) students who had their names pronounced correctly felt they were in a more welcoming class environment and were more likely to believe they “belonged” in classes.
In reaction to my reference of this simple yet effective institutional practice in a publication, a smattering of readers shared their perspective that highlighting this practice implies the need for institutions to change to accommodate students. And they have questioned whether such a presumption should be made about institutions, rather than students. To me, highlighting this practice does not mean students can abandon their responsibility to meet the requirements of our institutions of higher education. But the perspective by these critics also negates the reality that most of higher education, especially public institutions, has already been adapting its practices to serve an ever-evolving (and nontraditional) student population.
Some institutions accommodate their changing student bodies by offering evening and weekend classes. Others offer individual courses and entire degrees online. Still others have increased their institutional aid offerings to financially support lower-income students. Providing institutional aid, student-support services, supplemental instruction and learning communities are examples of efforts to adapt institutional practices to better serve the growing numbers of nontraditional students on campuses across the country.
If we as a nation intend to meet the Obama administration’s goals of increased degree completion, we need to ensure the youngest and fastest growing population -Latinos – earn more college degrees. This will require assimilation by students and adaptation by institutions. For Latino students, this assimilation will require more students understand how to navigate our complex and diverse system of higher education in order to access, persist and complete a degree. For institutions of higher education, this adaptation will require continued innovation and evaluation of practices to better serve the evolving needs of current and prospective students – many of whom will be Latino. In tandem, assimilation and adaptation will strengthen higher education and educational attainment in our country.
Deborah A. Santiago is vice president for policy and research at Excelencia in Education.