Nothing travels faster than bad news. In the last two weeks, we have read negative stories about higher education in the mainstream media. For example, the 32 percent increase in educational fees at the University of California system made national news. Also widely covered is the case of a college graduate who could not pay his student loans, went into bankruptcy, got his loans discharged and is now being sued by the loan provider to repay the loans. In another national newspaper there was a story about college graduates (many of whom were Black males) who were finding it difficult in this economy to find employment. Yet another source summarized a recent report that projected the next class of college graduates will face less job opportunities and lower starting salaries than graduates from previous years.
What message do these stories send to the public about a college education? If people with resources and college opportunities are having difficulty paying for college or finding a job, what will that mean for those of us who do not have access to resources or established pathways to college? The Latino community is already less likely to earn a college degree than other racial/ethnic groups, and the potential “fallout” of this recent media coverage could create an additional hurdle for accelerating Latino college access and completion. Will these media stories reinforce the belief too many people have that college is not possible?
This is not to say that the media should limit reports on the challenges in higher education. These stories are accurate portrayals of the environment and the experiences of college students and graduates in a worsening economy. But what are the potential implications of these negative stories for the Latino community? Well, stories of students struggling to pay for college or having difficulty finding employment after they graduate have been more common in our communities. These stories reflect the challenges many Latino communities have faced for years.
Talk to many Latino first-generation college students and you will hear the story of someone they know in their community who went to college, took out a loan, dropped out and now has a loan to pay off without the benefit of a degree or a well-paying job. Or the story of a college graduate that has returned to live at home and is employed at the same department store where he worked before he earned his degree. There are also stories of success but these rarely travel as widely.
There are also less heralded stories in the mainstream media of institutions and nonprofit organizations across the country working hard to make sure Latino students know college is possible. These institutions are offering workshops on financial aid, hosting college fairs and increasing outreach in Spanish media and press. They are sponsoring community events on campus, supporting Latino college students to serve as mentors at their high school alma maters and encouraging adult English as a Second Language students to continue their education by taking college courses. But these institutions cannot do it alone. We have to find ways in the media, in public policy and at community gatherings to make clear the message to the Latino community that college is possible.
Deborah A. Santiago is vice president for policy and research at Excelencia in Education in Washington, D.C.