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Policy Challenges and Opportunities for Latinos in Higher Education

In this time of reflection and preparation for the new year, I have identified seven policy challenges and opportunities for improving Latino student success. I believe they are challenges to our perspectives on higher education as well as opportunities to reconsider the lens with which we examine higher education today. 


1. Heterogeneity – The Latino population is diverse. Latinos represent more than 20 countries of origin, a wide spectrum of immigration histories (from Latinos who arrived recently to those who have been here for generations) and language abilities. While in public policy we tend to aggregate student profiles in order to address issues that impact the most students, the heterogeneity of Latino students challenges public policy to be more inclusive.


2. Tradition – Higher education policy predominately focuses on traditional students attending traditional institutions in traditional pathways. Yet this policy focus serves a small percentage of the many students in college today. As the numbers of students who enroll at community colleges, enroll part-time, return to college as adults and enroll in more than one college concurrently grows, higher education policymakers will be challenged to also serve the growing nontraditional students in higher education with effective policies.


3. Limited focus – Many policymakers focus their energy on ensuring access to the flagship institutions of higher education in their states. However, these institutions only enroll a small percentage of students enrolled in higher education in their states, especially Latino students. For example, while the majority of students in California are enrolled in community colleges and the California State University system, a lot of political attention is focused on strengthening the flagship institutions in the University of California system. If we are to improve student success, a more expansive focus in policy is needed that addresses the strengths and needs of students in less selective institutions as well.


4. Acceptable failure – Our institutions of higher education are generally not structured to ensure the success of students. In fact, it is common practice for students to be told only one in three students will make it to graduation during college orientations (“look to the left and the right of you, because only one of you will make it”). This general acceptance of student failure in higher education will continue to be a challenge at all levels of policy until the expectations and policies change to ensure more student success.


5. Marginal profile – Too often the profile of Latinos in education is that we are English language learners, high school dropouts, and immigrants.  While some of us do represent this profile, the majority of us do not, and policies that sole focus on this profile marginalizes the majority of Latinos and present a policy challenge to student success.


6. Data use – In the last 10 years, we are more likely to disaggregate data to understand student achievement. However, too rarely do we use this data to then target effective interventions. This could be because there is a general fear in institutions to be perceived as discriminating amongst student groups, but this still presents a policy challenge to close the achievement gaps identified.


7. Scale – The numbers of students we need to succeed in college in order to meet our higher education goals as a nation require challenging the status quo in new ways to increase both efficiency and effectiveness of our institutional, state and federal policies.


Addressing these seven policy challenges with a lens that looks at the implications for Latinos will be critical to meeting our nation’s degree completion, economic competitiveness and civic engagement goals.


Deborah Santiago is vice president for policy and research for Excelencia in Education in Washington, D.C. 


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