By: Leonard A. Valverde
The Pew Research Center just issued a report showing a large increase of Latinos in college enrollment (a 24% growth from 2009 to 2010). However, the numbers and percentages reported show that Latinos still lag behind another historically underrepresented group in higher education, African Americans. While many Latino leaders greet the great increase in enrollment with favor, there are many others who have stated that higher education must do more to bring about better representation and participation by Latinos in colleges. Why? Because even though enrollment numbers are now looking good, such improvements have been so slow and long in coming.
As the Pew Research Center report accurately states, most of the growth in college enrollment is due to the ever-increasing numbers of Hispanics in the U.S. general population. If Latinos are going to reach true parity, not to mention success in college as defined by high graduation rates, then educational systems at all levels will have to insert new paradigms. There are some practices still in place that have acted as big barriers to Hispanics and have kept their enrollment in colleges down considerably. For example, K-12 dropout rates are still too high and will likely get greater given the push for higher standards even as teachers receive no assistance to help students achieve. Reading and math scores are far below grade level for too many Latinos. Latino high school graduates who do go on to college enroll in community colleges for many reasons (e.g., cost, proximity to family and work) and have to take remedial courses to compensate for a poor high school education. The consequence is loss of financial aid since remedial courses do not count toward transferability to four year colleges. Compounding the financial assistance factor is the alarming trend that higher education is becoming more and more expensive. For Latinos, this translates into part time attendance and the phenomenon of “stopping-out” a semester to raise funds.
It is critical that Latinos come to believe that they can go to college, no matter their personal circumstances. Once they have made a commitment to go to college, we must share with them what they need to know and do in order to be successful in college. Additionally, current paradigms must be changed. When studying why students drop out, it is clear that they have negative experiences in school both academically and socially for the following reasons: they do not see the relevance of course material to their life; they sense a disconnect between the amount of education and the type of careers open to their group in the world of work; they have no hope for a better future; their teachers have low expectations of them; and they perceive an incompatibility between their home/community life and school structure and values.
This short essay cannot cover all of the paradigm changes needed to help improve Latino students' experiences in school. However, a good starting point is the traditional practice of college recruitment, which touches so very few Latino students. High schools with majority Latino student bodies rarely have college recruitment nights. And college recruitment events for those that do can be characterized as the “farmer’s market” type—that is, we (college recruiters) are here to pick the best of your crop (seniors). This process results in exclusion, as only a handful will be encouraged to apply and even fewer will be admitted). The new paradigm calls for colleges and universities to start early in the process of helping the farmer (K-12 teachers) plant the seeds (early intervention at least the 8th grade), and advise what minerals (classes) are best for the crop to be abundant. This new paradigm is more than colleges telling K-12 districts which courses students need to take, what grades they have to earn, and how many units they need to have upon graduation. Rather, this means that working partnerships exist, cooperative efforts are taken, and frequent exchanges take place at both the district/school and at the college campus. Community colleges should be part of this triad. Colleges of education are natural linkages, but others need to be involved, such as admission personnel and recruitment staff. There should be many contact points between Latino secondary students and colleges. For example, college faculty and students from various academic disciplines should speak to secondary school students on regular basis, and school districts should schedule routine visits to college athletic or theater events. By the time senior year rolls around, for Latinos college life should not be a mystery or a foreign place that is not attainable. It should be a natural expectation.
In short, the new paradigm of college recruitment requires colleges to change their ways to accommodate a new population; to transform from being exclusive to being inclusive; to move away from homogeneous groups to heterogeneous groups; and to respect diversity as an added value rather than a deficit. And before anyone thinks that the present day system is good and does not need to be changed because it has worked well for former generations, I offer a reminder about the ever growing concern by college and university administrators, staff, and faculty that college freshmen student retention over the past two decades on average has been about 50%—that is, half do not complete their first year or return for their sophomore year.
In closing, my observations should not be taken as a condemnation of public education and colleges, but rather as an opinion that our educational systems need to evolve as society changes much more rapidly than in the past. Out of necessity, I stress that more educational systems must initiate new paradigm shifts so that Latinos and other groups of color can gain access and succeed in higher education commensurate with their true numbers.
Leonard A. Valverde this year became professor emeritus at Arizona State University. His 40+ years in education include him serving as a department chair at the University of Texas at Austin, vice president of academic affairs at UT San Antonio, a college of education dean at ASU. Also, he has been the director of the Office of Advanced Research in Hispanic Education and the executive director Hispanic Border Leadership, a five state consortium (K-12 districts, community colleges and four year universities). He authored and edited a book directed to the above issues entitled: Latino Change Agents in Higher Education: Shaping a System that Works for All.