Special Report
Equity & Diversity

Hispanic Girls Face Special Barriers on Road to College

By Katherine Leal Unmuth — June 01, 2012 5 min read
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After 15-year-old Valerie Sanchez spent a day of her spring break in Fort Worth touring the well-manicured grounds of Texas Christian University and listening to an inspirational talk from members of a Latina sorority, she felt sure of her future.

“I’m going to college,” says the teenager after the visit organized by the Dallas center of Girls Inc., a national nonprofit group. “I want to be the first in my family.”

But like many young Latinas, she faces a host of challenges in the coming years, as she works to graduate from high school, go on to community college, and then enroll in a four-year institution.

Sanchez moved from Mexico when she was 9 years old and enrolled in the 156,000-student Dallas Independent School District. After taking bilingual classes taught in Spanish and English, she found the transition to all-English classes in middle school difficult.

Consequently, Sanchez was held back in the 8th grade last year at Edison Middle Learning Center here in Dallas. She now attends tutoring sessions after school in addition to programs provided by Girls Inc. that focus on career planning and pregnancy prevention.

The plight of Latino young men often dominates the discussion of graduation rates. But young Latinas also face cultural, economic, and educational barriers to finishing high school and entering and completing college.

“There’s the assumption that girls are doing fine,” says Lara Kaufmann, a senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, in Washington. “It’s true that within ethnic groups girls are doing better than boys. But they’re not doing well.”

Falling Behind

While Hispanic women are more likely to graduate from high school and college when compared with Hispanic men, some statistics suggest they trail behind African-American and white women on some such measures.

Postsecondary Engagement Lags for Latinas

Latinas ages 18 to 24 have lower postsecondary-engagement rates than Asian, white, and black women of the same age bracket. Asian women are twice as likely as Latinas to be either enrolled in higher education or to have a postsecondary credential.

BRIC ARCHIVE

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

According to a Pew Hispanic Center analysis of 2011 Census survey data, about 17 percent of Hispanic females ages 25 to 29 have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with about 10 percent of Hispanic males, 43 percent of white females, and 23 percent of black females in that age span.

To delve into why such gaps persist, the National Women’s Law Center collaborated with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund on a 2009 study on educational outcomes for Latinas.

While the middle and high school girls interviewed in the report said they wanted to graduate from college, they also said they didn’t expect to achieve that goal. The report also cited challenges for them in reaching educational goals, including such difficulties as immigration status, poverty, discrimination, low self-esteem, higher rates of depression and attempted suicide, gender stereotypes, and limited English proficiency.

A cultural emphasis on loyalty to family also can play a role. Latinas may be expected to take on additional duties as caregivers, such as helping to watch younger children or aid elderly family members. They may be expected to live with their parents until they are married, making it difficult to leave home to go away to college.

Ties That Bind

Celina Cardenas mentors Hispanic girls in the 37,000-student Richardson Independent School District in the Dallas suburbs. Cardenas, a district community-relations coordinator, is Mexican-American and feels she can relate to their experiences.

Valerie Sanchez, 15, works on a writing assignment during reading class at the Thomas A. Edison Middle Learning Center in Dallas. The eighth grader is working to become the first in her family to attend college.

“It’s kind of like you’re born with responsibility—especially the girls,” she says. “Doing something on your own may not sit very comfortably with them because they may not want to let anyone down. I talk to them a lot about not feeling selfish that they’re disappointing their family by going away, and understanding there’s nothing wrong with having those goals.”

Family loyalty can cause Hispanic girls to choose less-competitive colleges than they are qualified to attend so they can keep living with their parents. They may also not be well informed about financial-aid opportunities to attend more expensive schools.

University of Texas at San Antonio education professor Anne-Marie Nuñez says that when girls live at home while in college, they may have a hard time focusing on their studies because of family obligations.

“They may be juggling multiple responsibilities that pull them away from being able to focus on their studies,” Nuñez says. “Other family members may not understand the energy they need to focus on their studies.”

In Texas, a nonprofit online magazine written by girls, called Latinitas, aims to empower young women. The organization also provides workshops, mentoring, and college tours. On the website, Saray Argumedo, 23, shares her own experiences about the tension with her family when she studied at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“All I can do is ask for forgiveness when my mom questions why I spend all my time outside of the house studying, working, and getting involved in my community,” she writes. “I thought that they would be proud of me, but why are they so angry?”

Teenage Motherhood

Young Latinas also are more likely than most young women in the United States to have their own children as teenagers. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, in Washington, about 52 percent of Latinas become pregnant before age 20, nearly twice the national average. In Dallas, the nonprofit group Alley’s House helps mothers complete their General Educational Development, or GED, studies and build their confidence.

BRIC ARCHIVE

Yesenya Consuelo, 19, dropped out of Spruce High School in Dallas her freshman year when she became pregnant with her now-4-year-old daughter. Consuelo wants to study at a community college to be a surgical technologist, but she needs to pass the math portion of the GED, which she has failed twice. She comes to Alley’s House for math tutoring four days a week.

Consuelo says her daughter is her motivation to finish school. “I’m trying to be the best I can for her,” she says.

Despite the challenges, says Nuñez, the education professor, “the truth is Latino families have as high aspirations as other groups. Sometimes, they just don’t know how to translate those aspirations to reality.”

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