'The Latino Education Crisis'

December 22, 2008

Generalities about "minority students" can easily hide specific issues related to various ethnic and racial groups -- and the ways they do and do not advance in the American educational systems. The Latino Education Crisis: The Consequences of Failed Social Policies, just published by Harvard University Press, is a scholarly attempt to focus on one fast-growing ethnic group. The authors are Patricia Gándara, professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles, and Frances Contreras, professor of education at the University of Washington. The book primarily deals with elementary and secondary education, but a major chapter focuses on higher education. They responded to questions via e-mail about their findings on Latino students and college-going rates and success.

Q: In what ways are the issues facing Latino students with regard to college-going similar or different to those facing other minority groups?

A: Latinos have the worst record of completing college degrees of any group; between 9 and 11 percent for the last three decades; African Americans, for example, have been making slow but steady progress over the past three decades, from 11 percent in 1975 to 18 percent in 2006.

Q: You cite research on the role of maternal expectations and how they are voiced as correlating with going to college. Why is this so important, and what are the implications of this finding?

A: Mothers have been identified in many studies as being key to motivating their children educationally. This is no different for Latinos, in spite of the fact that these mothers have much less formal education, on average, than mothers of all other major ethnic groups. Over 40 percent of Latina mothers have less than a high school education. This compares to approximately 12 percent of African American mothers.

Q: How does growing up in a primarily Spanish speaking environment affect college-going rates?

A: Growing up in a primarily Spanish-speaking environment does NOT in itself affect college-going. Many Spanish speaking students from solid middle class homes go to college and succeed. Their families are able to prepare them well for school and as result they do well. However, if the family does not have sufficient resources and the schools that their children attend are impoverished, as is the case with the great majority of Latino students in the United States, and if the instruction they receive is generally in a language they cannot understand, then the data speaks for itself -- the consequences are negative.

Q: Do standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT hinder enrollments of minority students?

A: Yes. Some colleges that practice affirmative action tend to not count these scores very heavily, but schools that use them generally include them in a formula that puts both Latinos and African Americans at a disadvantage for admission. In states without affirmative action they are especially problematic because there is little means for counterbalancing the weight placed on them in admissions decisions. Of course, it is important to remember that there is an extremely strong correlation between SAT, ACT, and family income and parent education levels. So, poverty and poor schooling are the real culprits that simply get expressed in these scores.

Q: In several states over the last year, politicians have attacked policies that allow undocumented students to enroll in or pay in-state tuition at public colleges. Most Latino students in American higher education are of course legally in the United States. What do you make of all the attention on these other students? Does that attention have a negative impact on other Latino students?

A: The problem of undocumented students in higher education is a serious, and terribly large, one. Many of these students have been here almost all of their lives and as expressed in the Plyler v. Doe decision of 1982, it is not their fault that they find themselves here without documentation. Hence it is especially unfortunate -- for both them and the broader community -- that they are impeded from educating themselves well. They are our children -- the Supreme Court has ruled on this -- it makes no sense at all to refuse to educate them.

Q: What are three things a college should do to promote enrollment by Latino students?

A: Recruit in schools and community colleges where these students attend, such as Hispanic-serving community colleges; reach out the middle schools where these students are forming their postsecondary plans, work with high schools to create a seamless program that reaches across high school AND college to support these students not only as they transition to higher education but also while they are progressing through college.



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