Special Report
Equity & Diversity

For Many Latino Students, College Seems Out of Reach

By Caralee J. Adams — June 01, 2012 12 min read
Lisnanlly Guaba, 18, discusses college applications with Assistant Principal Jenny Rodriguez, right, during a mentoring session at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School in New York City, where 98 percent of students are Latino. Most members of the senior class will be first-generation college students.
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The college-application process is hard enough. Between studying for admissions tests, writing essays, and filling out financial-aid forms, many students find it overwhelming.

Now consider how much harder it might be if English is not your first language, no one in your family has gone to college, and you don’t have enough money to visit campuses, let alone pay tuition.

That’s the situation for many Latino students. And experts and advocates say those barriers, in large part, explain why they trail other Americans in completing higher education.

Just 37 percent of adult Hispanics have completed some college coursework or an associate degree. This lags behind the postsecondary attainment of Asians, whites, and blacks, each of which have rates above 50 percent. That’s not to say there hasn’t been progress. Over the past decade, Latino adults’ educational attainment has increased significantly, and the number of Hispanics with a bachelor’s degree has risen 80 percent from 2.1 million to 3.8 million, according to research by Excelencia in Education, a Washington-based national nonprofit that advocates for Latino success in higher education.

“I do see progress and find great hope,” says Deborah Santiago, a co-founder and the vice president of policy and research for the organization. “But we still have large gaps.”

As Latino students transition from high school to a career, they often lack the academic preparation, money, and college know-how to make it in college. Many are first-generation college students whose families aren’t familiar with the U.S. higher education system and financial aid. There can be language barriers and a cultural reluctance to move away from family and borrow for school. And, like other historically disadvantaged minority groups in the United States, many Hispanics attend K-12 schools without adequate counseling or course rigor.

To meet President Barack Obama’s national college-completion goal by 2020, Latinos need to earn 5.5 million certificates and degrees from 2010 to 2020. Upping educational progress for this population is particularly important because nearly 60 percent of the workforce in the next 15 years is expected to come from Latino families, says José Rico, the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. He says the federal government needs to work with the states, as well as colleges and high schools, to improve access and completion. “It’s a no-brainer from our end to invest in our communities,” he says. “This is preparing to grow our economy and workforce.”

Not only is the Hispanic population growing faster than most other racial and ethnic groups, it is also much younger, suggesting the opportunity is prime for increasing the college-going rate. The average age of Latinos is 27, compared with about 40 for most other population groups. To help Latinos overcome the barriers that stand between them and a college degree, high schools, colleges, governments, and nonprofits are developing innovative programs to provide guidance about course selection, trips to college campuses, and mentoring through the college-application process and scholarship search.

Setting the Tone

One such example is the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School at the northernmost tip of Manhattan in New York City. Spanish is spoken widely at this public school, where 98 percent of students are Latino—most are from the Dominican Republic or of Dominican descent—and all qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. Principal Brett Kimmel opened the school in 2006 with 150 students and now has 600 students in grades 6-12, with the founding students on the cusp of graduation.

“Our goal is to work with students and families to prepare academically and socially for success in college and beyond,” says Kimmel.

Educational Attainment

(Ages 25-64)

Educational attainment levels for adults vary by race and ethnicity. Latinos ages 25 to 64 are less likely than individuals from other major racial and ethnic groups to have completed at least some college coursework or an associate degree. More than one-third of Latinos have less than a high school diploma—the largest such percentage across major racial and ethnic categories.


SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2012. Analysis of data from the American Community Survey (2008-2010), U.S. Census Bureau.

To achieve this, the school aims to create a college-going culture starting in middle school. It promotes academic rigor, gets families involved, provides college-preparation workshops, and arranges bus trips to colleges to give students an exposure to the postsecondary world that they might not get otherwise.

“To connect them to kids at those campuses who look like them—it’s so much more of a powerful experience than sitting with a laptop and looking at college websites,” says Kimmel.

Washington Heights students are facing difficult odds. Many arrive at the school two or three years below grade level academically, but by the end of 8th grade, the goal is for students to be up to speed and into rigorous high school courses. About 90 percent of the students will be first-generation college students.

This year, 100 percent of the school’s 76 seniors applied to college, and most have hopes of attending, according to Kimmel.

Across the country, in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District along the Mexican border in Texas, Superintendent Daniel King believes the early-college high school model is the best hope for helping his students, 99 percent of whom are Hispanic and 41 percent English-learners. The program is designed so all students graduate with at least 12 college credits and the skills to complete a full degree or credential. To overcome the language barrier, limited-English-proficient students entering the district—as well as English-speakers—can participate in a dual-language enrichment program and graduate bilingual and biliterate.

“We can’t do what we were doing yesterday,” King says. “We need college and high school to be seamlessly connected.”

As it’s being expanded—2,000 of the district’s 8,000 high school students are enrolled in a college course each semester—progress is being made. The district has raised its four-year graduation rate from 62 percent to 87 percent in the past three years, and the number of students enrolling in college after graduation doubled between 2007 and 2010, which administrators attribute to several initiatives, including the early-college high school.

To whittle away at the dropout problem in the school, King joined his staff members in making home visits to get students back—not talking about high school, where they had already failed and quit, but interesting them instead in a college track, talking about careers. “When they see we won’t give up on them, that’s when we see that spark,” says King. “It’s about relevance, expectations, and knowing somebody cares.”

Nonprofits Fill Gaps

Beyond schools, nonprofits are stepping in to help at-risk students such as Jackie Ruiz-Velasco, 18, of Milwaukee, make the transition to college. Since she was a little girl, Ruiz-Velasco’s parents encouraged her to go to college. But as immigrants from Mexico, they didn’t have the experience or the language skills to guide her in the college-application process. So she turned to College Possible, a nonprofit organization based in St. Paul, Minn., that provides free support to low-income students, many of whom are from diverse backgrounds. For two years, Ruiz-Velasco spent two days a week after school studying for the ACT, filling out college applications, applying for financial aid, and working with a mentor.

College Loan-Averse

Percentage of students in nondegree, two-year, and four-year postsecondary programs who did not borrow funds from 2003 to 2009 to finance their higher education, by race and ethnicity.


SOURCE: Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, 2009

“She helped me a lot,” Ruiz-Velasco says of her mentor. “I know when I have a problem or feel I can’t continue, she will always have a smile for me and encourage me.”

It’s been a stressful senior year, says Ruiz-Velasco, between taking part in College Possible, maintaining her 3.9 grade point average, and working with her mother 11 hours every Saturday and Sunday for a cleaning company. She has been accepted to five colleges and is piecing together scholarships to pay for it, trying to avoid taking out loans. She is looking for a small, private college close to home so she can help out her family.

“What they can do, they will,” says Ruiz-Velasco of her parents. “They have other problems to handle. I don’t want to put more problems on them.” Her biggest concern about college is performing well enough in English, since Spanish is her first language.

For David Cruz, a New York City public school student, the process of working with a nonprofit group to find a pathway to college began in the 6th grade through the Harlem Educational Activities Fund, or HEAF, which tries to help students like him in the Big Apple complete college. The program kept him busy in the summers with electives from which he learned how to run his own restaurant, design comics, and work with robotics. After school three days a week in middle school, two days a week in 9th and 10th grades, and once a week in 11th and 12th grades, the Harlem fund provided Cruz with extra help in the college-admissions process, from SAT preparation to scholarship searching. He also participated on its robotics team as a senior, which required him to take part in Saturday sessions from October through March.

“There was a time when I felt coming to HEAF was overwhelming,” says Cruz, who had conflicts with sports and other activities. “I felt like I was not able to deal with it all. But I was able to sit down and figure out what I really wanted to do and I continued coming because I knew being here would open up different opportunities. … I saw academics as more important.”

Cruz was raised by his single mother, who is from Honduras. His father is Dominican. To accommodate the diverse backgrounds of its participants, the Harlem fund offers parent conferences in English and Spanish. Through the program, Cruz estimates he has visited nearly 30 campuses and after weighing numerous offers, he decided to study engineering at Pennsylvania State University, in State College, Pa.

Senior Krystal Acevedo takes notes in her AP English Language and Composition class at the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School. This year, 100 percent of the senior class applied to college, the principal says.

Involving families as early as middle school is vital to increasing educational attainment for Latino students, says Anne-Marie Nuñez, an assistant professor in educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Texas, San Antonio. “If parents aren’t familiar with college, they are apprehensive about their children going,” she says.

Many are recent immigrants and don’t realize the difference between community colleges and universities. Research shows that many Hispanics “undermatch,” not choosing a four-year college even though they are eligible, says Nuñez. That tendency may be linked to a desire to stay close to home or to concern over finances. Latino students often lack financial literacy, overestimate the cost of college, and tend to be loan-averse, says Nuñez. While a pay-as-you-go approach has its merits, students are less likely to finish a degree if they attend part time or if they start at a community college.

Programs that partner with schools and businesses to reach out to Latino families can help build the economic, social, and cultural capital that it takes to succeed in college, says Nuñez. “The numbers of Latinos are going to be increasing so much that [this issue] is going to be harder and harder to ignore,” she says.

High School Outreach

Some individual colleges and universities also have developed innovative programs to reach out to the Latino community. In the late 1990s, students from the Sweetwater Union High School District in San Diego County—about 75 percent of whom are Latino—were not completing high school in large enough numbers, and few were going to college. To guide and motivate students, San Diego State University started the Compact for Success program that guarantees university admission to students in the district who meet set benchmarks. “If we were going to change the tide, we needed education reform in a big way,” says Louis Murillo, the program’s director.

Now in its 12th year working with students in grades 7-12, the program entails enlisting both university faculty members and district teachers to make the college expectations clear and pump up the academic rigor of students’ coursetaking. To earn university admission, students have to maintain a 3.0 GPA through their senior year, complete course requirements, take the ACT or SAT, and pass the college’s math- and English-placement tests. Students are given a laminated sheet that spells out by grade level what they need to do to be on track. Once on campus, the Compact students receive extra tutoring and advising to increase retention.

The number of students from Sweetwater passing the proficiency exams for San Diego State has increased 600 percent from 2000 to 2010, and enrollment has grown from 308 students to 650—an improvement of 111 percent.

“We took a district with a high dropout rate in high school and a low college-going rate, and we’ve turned the whole thing around,” says Murillo.

Without role models or family members who have gone to college, the Sweetwater students learn the ins and outs of campus life from the Compact advisers, who are current college students.

Marcela Meave is a graduate of the Compact program, a former adviser, and now is pursuing her master’s degree in school counseling. As part of the first student cohort of the program, Meave says just learning about the requirements for college was a real eyeopener. Later, as an adviser who was a first-generation Hispanic student herself, she could both speak the high school students’ language and relate to their experiences. “I was mainly demystifying the college-admission progress,” she says. “Many think you have to be a 4.0 student to make college possible and you have to have money. That’s not the case for these students.” She explains there are grants and loans to make college possible, as there were for her.


With eight campuses and 70,000-plus students, Miami Dade Community College in Florida awards more associate degrees to Latinos than any other institution in the country, according to a recent report by Excelencia in Education. Administrators are frequent visitors to local high schools to help with academics and financial aid and get students ready and motivated for college, says the college provost, Rolando Montoya.

Instead of waiting for students to come to the college, Miami Dade staff members from admissions and financial aid go to the high schools on evenings and Saturdays for “FAFSA marathons” to help families, many of whom are Latino, fill out the federal Free Application for Federal Student Aid form. A financial-aid officer explains the process step by step,with floating assistants walking around the room to help parents or students who get stuck completing the form online.

“In the beginning, they are shy. They don’t know the terminology. They haven’t gone to college,” says Montoya. But they are in a familiar setting, with personnel in the high school that they know, and information is translated into Spanish and Haitian Creole. “You can see the faces of gratefulness. Some of them even cry when they realize that their children are graduating and going to college,” he says.

The college’s faculty members are working with high schools to comply with the new Florida law requiring all 11th graders be tested for college readiness. The community college’s professors are also devising curriculum for developmental math and reading so students can get up to speed before enrolling.

“The battle for access was won several years ago. We have a majority-minority institution,” says Montoya. “We are not satisfied with the rate of completion. That is the new battle.”

Special coverage on the alignment between K-12 schools and postsecondary education is supported in part by a grant from the Lumina Foundation for Education, at www.luminafoundation.org.


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