Hispanic-serving Institution Officials Urge Education Reform to Expand Latino Opportunity

WASHINGTON — In response to the booming Latino student population across the country, the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) is encouraging concerted collaboration between Hispanic-serving higher education institutions and public school systems to increase the numbers of Hispanics advancing from preschool to graduate school.

At HACU’s 15th Annual National Capitol Forum in Washington, more than 150 representatives from Hispanic-serving institutions [HSIs] and others convened to identify ways to improve Latino student achievement at the elementary and secondary level that will expand the pipeline for Hispanic students entering community colleges and universities.

The Pew Hispanic Center has reported that about 1 of 5 U.S. public school students in the K-12 system is Latino. Yet by senior year of high school, almost half of Hispanic students never receive their diplomas.

Abysmal dropout rates in the last three decades have limited the advancement opportunities of a population that is estimated to become the majority of the nation’s labor force in less than 50 years, HACU officials said.

“There has to be a number of targeted efforts to our communities in the direction of putting more emphasis on K-12 and higher education cooperation,” said HACU President Antonio Flores. “For us, it’s a detrimental separation that is the usual American way.”

The population estimates are a rallying point for HACU officials, who have watched migration and birth rates drive Latino population growth and dispersion. Census estimates predict that by 2050, 19 million more children will comprise the school-age population. Of that growth, 17 million are expected to be Hispanic; in 2007, there were more than 11 million school-age Hispanic children in the U.S., according to Census data.

With those numbers in hand, HACU officials are knocking on congressional doors on Capitol Hill Tuesday lobbying for extended educational and work-force access opportunities for Latino youth. 

During Monday’s forum sessions, senior administration officials in President Barack Obama’s cabinet explained the administration’s multifaceted plans for education reform that push for enhanced cooperation between K-12 and higher education.

U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan said addressing the K-12 dropout rate for Hispanic students is a matter of national concern. He said the inclusion of HSIs in a national conversation about the reauthorization of Elementary and Secondary Education Act [ESEA] may help prevent policymakers from getting bogged down in unproductive discussions in which officials fail to take responsibility for educational system failures.

It’s been typical that higher education, he said, blames secondary education, which in turn, blames elementary education. The early childhood education sector and, ultimately, parents are also blamed for children’s underachievement, Duncan said.

HSI cooperation with K-12 education is motivated, in part, by higher education’s self-interest to recruit well-prepared Latino students, said Juan Sepulveda, director of the White House initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans. But it is also a method for making everyone responsible for education reform, a goal of the administration, he said.

Cooperation has occurred before, Sepulveda said, but “it’s been there as the exception and not the norm. So we’ve got to figure out how to make the P-20 idea something natural” for the entire education system.

“Both are pretty autonomous systems so it makes it hard to coordinate and make it work,” he added. “But there is more of it being it said, a little bit of it taking place and we are trying to take that to scale.”

Dr. Flores said many HSIs are leading the collaboration initiative by partnering with school districts in their backyards. He added that the organization is further poised to facilitate engagement with recommendations for ESEA, including a proposal to create a national designation that recognizes Hispanic-serving school districts, where more than 25 percent of the student population is Latino. Of the 13,000 school districts in the U.S., about 2,100 of them meet this definition, he said.

In 2007, Hispanics represented 11 percent of U.S. school-age children population. By 2050, that percentage is expected to balloon to 28 percent, Census data shows.

Forum attendees praised the administration’s response to Latino student needs as being proactive and promising thus far but they are waiting to see the investment.

“If we are going to improve the economy of this country and be concerned with well-being of our citizens, we have to focus on educating our Latino population, which is the fastest growing population in this country,” said Dr. Silas Abrego, associate vice president for student affairs at California State University at Fullerton. “The Obama administration recognizes that and all the presenters have mentioned it. It’s matter of translating that verbiage into action and policy changes.”

Elizabeth Partoyan, of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said the education system is not designed to graduate all students even though most future jobs will require a college or professional degree. A system overhaul is needed to support students of diverse backgrounds, she said.

HACU recommends Congress authorize monies for HSIs to expand their teacher preparation programs to increase the number of teachers of color.

“HSIs educate nearly 26 percent of all Hispanic teachers,” said Jane West, senior vice president of government relations for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. “We think that requires direct investment in teacher preparation programs” to diversify the nation’s pool of K-12 educators.

She said teachers have reported nationally that they are not equipped to teach diverse students with special linguistic and cultural needs.

Additionally, HACU is asking for $175 million in Title V funds for undergraduate support at their member institutions and another $100 million for post-baccalaureate opportunities. They are also advocating for passage of the DREAM Act, a bill that would extend in-state tuition rates to undocumented students brought to the U.S. as children.

Hoping to broaden their role and influence, HACU opened a new office in Northern California and plans to open other offices to help HSIs maneuver at the state level.