A year ago Addi Hernandez was an administrative assistant at Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College.
But as a graduate of the college and a Latina, Hernandez found Latino students on the Bowling Green campus would often approach her for advice on what forms they needed to fill out or what they needed to do to be better college students.
Hernandez remembered being in high school and wanting to go to college but struggling to find the help she needed for how to do so, so she started participating in the college’s Super Sundays. These are events where people from the college attend churches in black and Latino communities in an effort to bring college information to students and families.
“The impact of it didn’t happen so much at the church, but afterward by having a presence in the community,” Hernandez said. “Young Latinos knowing there is a person in higher education that can guide them through these things.”
More importantly, they know there is someone connected to the college who has a similar personal journey, she said.
Southcentral Kentucky started to see an increase in the number of Latino students showing an interest and then enrolling on campus. So Hernandez began doing Latino outreach for the college part time, eventually accepting a full-time position as a recruiter and Latino outreach specialist for the campus.
“She’s a wonderful asset. We’ve seen a 25 percent increase in Latino students in just one year of her being in this role,” said Phil Neal, the college’s president. “When she got in front of the congregation … she was a natural and comfortable with talking in front of a crowd …. Addi loved it, getting out and working with students and the community.” The campus had about 180 Latino students last fall.
Many community colleges across the country have seen growing populations of Latino and Hispanic residents in their regions. But that growth often hasn’t translated to increases in Hispanic enrollment on their campuses, especially as overall enrollments decline in a largely recovered economy.
Like Southcentral Kentucky, some colleges are learning that the key to reaching out to Latino students, in particular, requires more personal effort than just college fairs or new advertising.
“Fifteen years ago, when I came up through the student affairs world, we were very clear about training advisers and financial aid folks to really talk to the student,” said Deneece Huftalin, president of Utah’s Salt Lake Community College. “Often we had Mom and Dad come in with the student and want to be involved, and our goal was to pull the student away and say, ‘You’re an adult. We’re going to talk to you, not Mom and Dad.’ We wanted to empower this young person.”
Huftalin said today that approach doesn’t work with many Latino students. And it often doesn’t work with millennials, regardless of race or ethnicity, who want their parents involved.
“With the Latino population, it’s important to have Mom and Dad in the room, so we had to shift our perspective,” Huftalin said. “The family has become an important part of the decision, so recruiting goes beyond the old-school ways of going to high school and talking to the student. We’re in community centers … we’re more intrusive about going around and knocking on doors.”
Recruiters are finding they’re no longer just trying to reach the student, but they may also be turning the parents, siblings and cousins into potential students as well, she said, adding that the campus has hired bilingual students and more Latino faculty to assist in recruitment.
Salt Lake has made progress. In 2009, less than 9 percent of students enrolled at the college identified as Hispanic or Latino. That number had grown to 17.5 percent by 2016.
“We know this is a young population, but they’re a population that is low income, first generation, and they may be immigrants and don’t know the system,” said Deborah Santiago, co-founder and chief operating officer of Excelencia in Education, adding that Latinos tend to place a high level of trust in someone who has already vetted the system and can recommend good organizations, groups or institutions.
If the message isn’t coming from someone they trust or relate to, then recruitment is harder, Santiago said.
When institutions say they’ll invest $35,000 in translating their websites into Spanish instead of hiring a community liaison or hosting events in a welcoming environment, she said, they’re not going to see much improvement in Latino enrollment.
There are other challenges community colleges face when they want to encourage more Hispanic students to apply.
“This is part of the fear of the unknown,” Santiago said. “You can appreciate in our current environment that young people may not know what they don’t know and may feel uncomfortable asking their parents.”
When families may be relying on a third party to help them fill out tax or federal student aid forms, that process requires a heightened level of trust. Santiago said some companies have taken advantage of Latino families by charging them to fill out FAFSA forms.
“It might not be they are undocumented,” she said. “It could be they don’t know where to access the information and fear it may cause unintended consequences.”
Even for students whose families went to college in their countries of origin, trying to figure out the American higher education system can be daunting, Hernandez said.
“There’s always the assumption that if somebody is not knowledgeable and Latino they’re undocumented,” Santiago said. “We’re finding Latino students are feeling disconnected. They’re U.S. citizens and they’re being asked about their documented status.”
Just a few weeks into the Trump administration, Hernandez said the discussion around immigration and a border wall with Mexico are having an effect on both current and potential students.
“Students are getting discouraged, even with mixed immigration statuses, it’s kind of like they feel they’ll get discriminated against because of how they look,” she said. “People will look at you as Latino and automatically categorize you as illegal, so I think students are getting a little discouraged and they’re afraid to start talking about it.”
Even when immigration status isn’t an issue, there’s still a lot of misinformation about college and financial aid, she said.
“People just don’t know how to go to school,” Hernandez said. “They have this misconception that if you get Pell Grants, you have to pay them back. That was the biggest fear my parents had. They were scared I was going to get in debt. We just didn’t know.”
Reaching Latino students in Kentucky goes beyond the efforts at Southcentral. The state’s community college system has three Latino outreach coordinators, including Hernandez, in areas where the Hispanic population is growing.
Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington enrolled about 150 students who identified themselves as Latino in 2005. A Hispanic outreach coordinator was hired that year, and enrollment has grown to 500. Latino students now comprise 4.5 percent of the total enrollment at Bluegrass.
“It still seems to be pretty small when compared to densely populated areas like California or Texas, but if you look at the school district and the main ones that serve the Lexington area, the student population is 16.9 percent Latino,” said Erin Howard, director of Latino outreach and student services at Bluegrass. “The majority of those schoolchildren are in elementary and middle school. So we’re starting to see the shift in population, and we are a very young population.”
The average age of all Latinos in the state is 23, whether they’re native or foreign-born residents. But the average age of Kentucky-born Latinos is 13, Howard said.
While these colleges are seeing significant improvements in their recruitment of Latino students, they’re all also working on improving completion rates and closing the achievement gap between minority students and non-Hispanic whites.
“We still have room to grow,” Huftalin said. “We’ve had an achievement gap for many years with white students, and in 2015 our Hispanic students made significant improvements.”
In 2015, completion rates over six years at the Salt Lake institution stood at 23 percent for white students and 18 percent for Hispanic students. That’s after a seven-percentage-point increase for Hispanic students since 2011, she said, adding that more work needs to be done for all students.
Back at Southcentral, Hernandez said her next goal is not only to continue giving more Hispanic students information about their opportunities in college but helping them to stay and graduate.
“I want to help the students that are here,” she said. “There’s still a lot to learn about this job, and this is the first full year I’m doing it. But I want to know where am I needed. What do students here need and how can I help them.”