One day, Charles B. Reed, chancellor of the California State University System, was visiting predominantly Latino schools near Los Angeles, asking around, trying to better understand how to recruit Latino students.
At one meeting, an elderly man who had heard it all before stood up: “Chancellor, will you put your money where your mouth is?” he asked. “I have a way to get to Latino mothers. They have a lot of influence on their children.”
That man was Vahac Mardirosian, founder of the Parent Institute for Quality Education, a group that is based in San Diego and is expanding to other states. The institute is known by its acronym (PIQE, pronounded P-K), and runs nine-week training programs at schools where parents, particularly those who did not attend college themselves, learn how to improve their children’s classroom performance and put them on the path toward college.
In February, Reed announced he’d be putting his money where his mouth is. California State pledged $575,000 in matching funds to bring the PIQE program to schools near CSU campuses -- enough money to allow for substantial expansion of its efforts. He also pushed to have recruitment materials printed in English and Spanish, including a popular poster titled "How to Get to College"  that CSU officials distribute whenever they meet with prospective enrollees and their families. These gestures, says Reed, show that campus officials are willing to bridge language gaps and are prepared to communicate with Latino students. (The system now offers the posters in five languages, and Hmong is set to be the sixth.)
David Valladolid, president and CEO of PIQE, said that parental college counseling is critical for all students, and especially low-income students, and especially low-income students in California, where professional counseling can be in short supply. According to a University of California report,  the average high school counselor in America serves 284 students, while the average California counselor serves 790, more than in any other state.
“One in two students in California right now is Hispanic,” says Valladolid, adding that PIQE is by no means restricted to Hispanic families, but that, in California, they are a large part of the clientele. “If we don’t get them to understand the system, they won’t go on.”
PIQE has one class a week for nine weeks. Two identical sections are held so that parents can work around their job schedules. The first three classes are general orientation. The next three discuss creating a home environment conducive to studying and academic success. For example, PIQE recommends that parents establish a time and space for studying complete with pencils and paper, and that they let their children see them reading.
The final three classes teach parents how to navigate their children’s schools. Parents are encouraged to visit their children's teachers at least once a month to track their progress, and to commend their children when they do well, as well as to learn about extracurricular and special programs offered at school. Valladolid said that, for families where no one has gone to college, even knowing that college applications have to be turned in in the fall of the year before a student wants to attend is knowledge that cannot be taken for granted.
Some parents who complete the PIQE course -- 30,000 graduated in California last year -- become recruiters for the program. “The best recruiter for us,” Valladolid said, “is a parent who graduated and whose child is benefiting from it.”
Some parents in each class of PIQE students are identified as “parent leaders,” Valladolid said, and they get a list of 100 names of potential PIQE parents. For every name on the list they call, they get 50 cents, and for each person called who ends up attending, they get $2.
Valladolid said that many Latino mothers have great influence in their children’s decisions, but that many are from countries, like Mexico, where the education system is managed by the federal government, rather than state by state, “and parent participation is not encouraged,” he said.
Brent Knight, president of Morton College, in Illinois, says that Reed is wise to be focusing on outreach to this burgeoning population. When Knight became president of Morton, which serves an area outside Chicago that is increasingly Latino,  he immediately felt that there were not enough Latino administrators. One of his first orders of business was recruiting staff members who would understand the need to connect with underserved students -- and their parents -- in the area.
“The community, in effect, owns the college,” says Knight. “We have a fiduciary responsibility to be representative.”
He has been successful at diversifying his staff to include several Spanish speakers, and has also led controversial efforts to have signs written in Spanish language placed around the campus to help Latino families feel more comfortable with the institution. All of the desk staff at help centers on campus are now bilingual as well, another signal that is meant to suggest inclusion.
The college has also created a summer Bridge Program, aimed at local high school students. Students are immersed for several weeks in the college environment and taught by professors to build their academic skills and prepare for enrollment. Administrators have also started the Bring a Buddy Program, which allows interested students to have their friends come with them to orientation sessions
“We’ve engaged the faculty and administrators at high school and have shown that we are as good a school as any in the areas,” says Mark Escamilla, executive vice president of Morton. “We’ve been able to change the opinions of critical players who were once skeptical of us.”
Sandra Saldana, dean of student success at Morton, says that once the new efforts began to unfold, word-of-mouth recruiting became much easier. She recalls one recent parent orientation where a Latino mother started telling others about the welcoming environment at Morton.
“In higher education, you have to market your services and how you can meet people’s needs at a good price,” says Saldana. "The message is, ‘We’re here to serve you, you, you.’ ”
That message has resounded. A decade ago, Latinos made up less than half of the college's students. In 2005-6, Latino students, primarily of Mexican descent, make up about 74 percent of the institution’s enrollment, up from 60 percent the previous year.
Enrollment jumps like that are what PIQE’s Valladolid hopes to see at Cal State, and which he knows, from historical precedent, are possible.
He recalls seeing a presentation a few years ago by David Hayes-Bautista, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the University of California at Los Angeles medical school. Hayes-Bautista started flashing statistics about a particular demographic. “Ninety percent of this group’s parents have no college education,” Valladolid recalls him saying. “Fifty percent will drop out of high school, 20 percent of those left will be eligible for college, 10 percent will go, and 5 percent will graduate.”
“Everybody said, ‘that must be the Latino community in California,’ ” says Valladolid. But it was the white community of 1950, many of whom had moved from the Midwest. “How did they change it to where 35 percent of white students get a B.A.?” asks Vallodolid. “His response was: through schools, churches, government … educational programs. It’s the same challenge today, but rather than a migratory population, we have an immigrant population.”