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Demographic Dilemma

Demographic Dilemma

Educators and policymakers are worried that despite a growing population, Hispanic college attendance and graduation rates haven’t changed in 20 years.

By Garry Boulard

As he enters his last semester of law school at the University of New

Mexico, Diego Esquibel remains convinced that he probably would not be where he is today had it not been for the unwavering support of his parents, who repeatedly insisted that he complete his formal education.
“Their thinking has always been that if I did not stick with it and instead went off in some other direction, I would essentially be closing doors for myself that should be open,” says Esquibel. “So sometimes, more for them than even for me, I have continued on. And now that I am so near to the end, I am really glad that I did.”

This year, Esquibel, 28, will not only be wrapping up his studies at UNM but also working in the local district attorney’s office in Albuquerque. He hopes the job will help him get a feel for the daily life of a public prosecutor.

But although he comes from a university with a growing percentage of Hispanic students, Esquibel is still more of the exception than the norm, especially when it comes to the graduate and professional schools.

“It is true that there are not as many Latino students at that level of education as we would like to see,” says Raul Gonzalez, education policy analyst with the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization. “That remains so across the board, in two-year schools, four-year schools and in graduate schools. It has been a problem that has been going on for a very long time.”

For educators and policymakers, the problem is particularly challenging because the lag has taken place during a time of dramatic growth in the country’s overall Hispanic population. Hispanics now comprise 14 percent of the national population, and their numbers are growing faster than any other demographic group. Many demographers believe the number will rise to 18 percent by 2020.

As a result, says Dr. Antonio Flores, the president and CEO of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, “There are more Hispanics emerging into all levels of education by virtue of the sheer explosive Hispanic population growth, but their rates of attendance and graduation remain nearly as low as 20 or 25 years ago.”

According to HACU’s most recent data, there were just more than 1.7 million Hispanic students enrolled in some form of higher education in 2004. The number represents just 7 percent of all postsecondary education students. The picture is even more troubling at the graduate level, where Hispanics comprise only 6.2 percent of the population. Only about 10 percent of Hispanic undergraduate students continue on to graduate school, which is leading some policymakers to suspect a problem with the pipeline.

Says Gonzalez, “A very large number of Latino students who make it to a four-year school are often the first in the family to do so, which means they do not possess the level of sophistication that comes when you are a second- or third-generation college-goer who knows what to expect at the four-year level and is already making plans for graduate school when they enter undergraduate school.”

The Power of Culture
The percentage of Hispanic students is even lower in the nation’s medical schools.“About 5 percent of all medical students and residents in the country today are of Hispanic origin,” says Dr. Elena Rios, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association.

“That is very obviously a number that is significantly lower than the general population, enough so that I don’t think we are ever going to catch up in terms of representing the general population,” she says.

The fact that more Hispanic females than males are currently attending the nation’s medical schools may present an entirely different problem. Hispanic communities nationwide may find themselves confronted with a distinct shortage of male Hispanic physicians.

“This is really a very powerful reflection of culture,” says Rios, who recently attended a conference at Stanford University that attracted nearly 30 Hispanic pre-med students, only one of whom was male.

“The pressure for a Hispanic male student to get out of school quickly and get married or go to work and help with the family is far greater than anyone who is not a part of that world can imagine,” Rios says, adding that for every student like Esquibel whose parents insisted that he complete school, there are at least one or two other Hispanic students with families who do not view attending college as an important priority.

“It is almost as if you have to go against your own family if you are expected to have any chance at all of making it to college, much less to graduate school,” she says.

Learning a new language is just one more obstacle for many Hispanic elementary and high school students. That challenge is made all the more difficult because large numbers of Hispanic students attend impoverished inner-city public schools.

“These kinds of hurdles can defeat some kids early on, making it almost impossible for them to think of finishing high school or going to college later on,” says Melissa Lazarin, education and policy analyst with the National Council of La Raza.

Says Rios, “It all comes back to the pipeline, of students getting from one level of school to another, but somehow instead falling by the wayside because they don’t have the kind of role models they need or are lacking for family support when it comes to this particular kind of pursuit.”

But despite the challenges, the numbers of Hispanic graduate students are slowly rising at some schools, due in large part to extensive recruitment efforts at those institutions.

“Schools have to do whatever they can to get the word out,” says Eric Abrams, the director of diversity initiatives at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. “If you fail to do that, it is kind of hard at the end of the day to see an increase in the numbers of whatever group it is you are targeting.”Stanford has partnered with organizations such as the National Association of Hispanic MBAs and the Society of Professional Engineers to help increase the number of Hispanic students in its graduate programs. The university has launched a series of informational sessions throughout the Western Hemisphere to garner interest among Hispanic students.

“Just this last year alone I was in Lima [Peru], Caracas [Venezuela] and Bogotá [Columbia], while others in our office have been to Mexico City, Monterrey and Montevideo, not to mention a number of cities around this country,” says Abrams. “We never wait for anyone to come to our doors.”

Hispanic students currently make up 100 of the 753 students enrolled in Stanford’s business school, a number officials say has remained fairly steady the last few years.

“These are not huge numbers, admittedly,” he says. “But the very fact that we are out in the community making our presence known sends a powerful signal that this really is something important to us. And I think that sort of thing has a funny way of influencing not only which school a student ultimately decides to go to, but also whether or not a student even wants to go to graduate school in the first place.”

Multiple Approaches 
While Stanford is traveling the globe searching out Hispanic students, many other schools are attempting to boost their Hispanic populations via more traditional methods, including well-established international student programs.

This fall, officials with the University of Arizona’s Graduate College announced that they were expanding a 25-year-old agreement with Mexico’s Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnologia (Conacyt) program. The expanded program will jointly fund the education of up to 100 doctoral students from Mexico, a significant increase from the 20 students funded in previous years.

“Some time ago, our university made the decision that it wanted to increase the number of Hispanic students in its graduate enrollments and that it would look to Mexico and Central America as excellent places for making that possible,” says Dr. Maria Teresa Velez, associate dean of UA’s graduate college.

In addition to the agreement with Conacyt, UA is also seeing a surge of American Hispanic students, particularly in the university’s science departments, says Velez.

“There were only about 20 students of Hispanic origin in the biomedical sciences as recently as five years ago,” she says. “But now that number is right around 50.”

In Albuquerque, the University of New Mexico has recruited closer to home, drawing from a growing pool in a city and state where the overall Hispanic population tops 42 percent.

That approach appears to be working. Hispanics accounted for 169 of the 1,000 total graduate students in UNM’s spring graduation. The figure represents almost 17 percent of the university’s total graduate student enrollment.

With an 18 percent undergraduate enrollment, Hispanic students are expected to continue matriculating through UNM’s graduate programs in the near future, say college officials.

“That is how it is going to be almost everywhere,” says Lazarin of the National Council of La Raza. “The fastest-growing segment of today’s Latino population is in the under-18 category, which means that we can expect to see much larger numbers of Latino students in the next decade or so, not only in undergraduate schools, but graduate schools as well.”

Such an increase might serve to compensate for the recent decline in Hispanic students. Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that race was a valid academic admissions criteria in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case, many schools and graduate pipeline programs such as the Ford Foundation Diversity Fellows program and the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship have changed their names and modified their eligibility requirements in an attempt to make them less specific to any one race or ethnic group.

“The fact that schools have been getting rid of racially exclusive programs does not mean that there will be fewer Latinos at the undergraduate and graduate levels,” says Roger Clegg, president and general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity. “That is primarily so because there is going to be a bigger pool of Hispanic students in general over the next few years. Even without the pipeline programs, their numbers are all slated to increase.”

But even a rapid increase won’t close the enrollment gap between Hispanics and other graduate students, says Rios. She contends that medical, law and business associations must take it upon themselves to target Hispanic students if they hope to narrow the gap.

“This is not something that we can rely on the government to do or expect the schools to do all by themselves,” she says. “The professions themselves have to get involved with their own kind of strategic vision. And until that happens, I think the gap is going to remain. It may get somewhat smaller — but it is not going to disappear any time soon.”

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