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Latino College Access and Achievement Focus of TRPI Conference

Long Beach, Calif.

When Harry Pachón’s brother asked him which college he would attend after high school, Pachón said he thought colleges would get in touch with him. Dr. Pachón, now  president of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, said his anecdote illustrated that lack of information should not be confused with lack of ability.

This sentiment echoed throughout the TRPI conference on Latino college access held late last week and was well received by the more than 600 scholars, students, administrators and education experts in attendance.

Some of the barriers to college access speakers identified included lack of access to information about college admissions, financial aid and scholarships, as well as parental inexperience with the college application process. Overshadowing all of these challenges, however, was the specter of socioeconomic disadvantage.

Patricia Pérez, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles, noted that, on average, only 10 percent of Latinos who enroll in college complete their bachelor’s degree. Pérez and her colleagues at UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) found that many students go to college with a lack of “self efficacy or academic competency, financial constraints, and extra-familial or work obligations.” According to Dr. Victor Saenz, also of the Institute, some of the factors that mitigate these negative trends include parental encouragement, more Latinos/as on campus, and access to religious activities, particularly for men.  

According to Dr. Lisa Chavez of the Center for Latino Policy Research at UC- Berkeley, 87 percent of Latinos who entered a California community college in 1996 did not transfer to a four-year college nor did they earn an associate degree in six years.

“Many students stumble because they don’t know how to navigate the transfer process,” said Armida Ornelas, associate professor at East Los Angeles College. The research suggested that despite their initial intentions to transfer, students either stay at the community college, or leave without obtaining a degree.

Ornelas recommends community colleges develop what she terms a “transfer culture” in which students clearly know what to expect so they can transfer to a four-year university. Ornelas and her UCLA colleagues also said transfer students should be encouraged to take advantage of academic preparation programs like PUENTE ( and First-Year Experience (FYE) ( Institutions must do more to understand the demographics of their students and reach out to families in order to help students that are “embedded in a culture of deficit,” she added. 

Representatives from the University of Southern California’s SummerTIME (Tools, Information, Motivation, and Education) program shared their experiences working with college-bound Latino students. According to program officials, eligible Latino students were not applying to the University of California system, because they “didn’t want to write a personal statement,” and because they were not receiving adequate college counseling. Through SummerTIME, select students are immersed in a residential program that mimics the college experience while they learn to improve their expository writing abilities, and strengthen their grammar and language skills. Students are also taught ways to finance their college education.   

Francisco Estrada and Araceli Simeón-Luna of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) said undocumented students, whose citizenship status prevents them from receiving state or federal financial aid, should look into private loans and grants or scholarships while attending a public university. MALDEF maintains a list of scholarships that do not require citizenship and encourages college counselors and financial aid officers to learn more about in-state tuition bills like AB-540.

Documented and undocumented high school, college and graduate students can also take advantage of the scholarship information collected by TRPI at their Latino College Dollars ( Web site. There, California Latinos can search for scholarships based on educational level, GPA and citizenship requirements. 

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