Equity & Diversity

Latino Students Less Likely to Select Four-Year Colleges

By Mary Ann Zehr — August 10, 2010 7 min read
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By attending Oregon State University rather than a community college, 21-year-old Doris Gonzalez Gomez has taken a step out of the norm for many Latinos to boost her prospects of earning a bachelor’s degree.

When Latinos go to college, they are less likely than any other major racial or ethnic group to attend a four-year college or university, according to an unpublished analysis of federal education data by the Pew Hispanic Center. That’s a concern to educators because students who start at community colleges are less likely than their peers beginning postsecondary studies at four-year institutions to earn bachelor’s degrees, which statistics show typically translate into better pay in the labor market.

Ms. Gonzalez was an intern this summer for U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif. She’s among 30 Latinos who were selected by the Washington-based Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute to be interns on Capitol Hill. All but one are attending four-year colleges.

Ms. Gonzalez is the U.S.-born daughter of Mexican immigrants who worked as migrant pickers of apples, pears, and apricots when she was a child. Now, her father, who finished 3rd grade in Mexico, is a maintenance worker for a golf course. Her mother, who completed 6th grade, is a janitor for an elementary school.

“I always knew a lot of people expect us [Latinos] to go to a community college,” Ms. Gonzalez said. “I wanted a full experience of going to a four-year college.”

She says a recruiter for a federal program for migrant students, the College Assistance Migrant Program, guided her while in high school to apply to and get accepted by a four-year university.

Getting Advice

Four congressional interns interviewed for this article, all from low-income families and the first in their families to attend a four-year institution of higher education, credited different factors with helping them look beyond community college.

“I wanted a full experience of going to a four-year college,” says Doris Gonzalez Gomez, 21, who attends Oregon State University. An unpublished analysis of federal education data by the Pew Hispanic Center indicates that Latinos are the least likely of any major racial or ethnic group to attend a four-year college or university.

One said the assistance of a high school guidance counselor was crucial. The rest got advice elsewhere, such as from peers in Advanced Placement or honors courses.

But they are a minority among their peers. Nationwide, 48 percent of Latinos who are first-time, full-time college freshmen enroll in four-year institutions. That’s the lowest proportion of any major racial or ethnic group, Richard Fry, a senior research associate for the Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center, found in an analysis of 2008 data from the federally administered Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. Meanwhile, the proportion of students enrolling in four-year institutions is 69 percent for Asian or Pacific Islander students, 66 percent for whites, 54 percent for blacks, and 53 percent for American Indians or Alaska Natives.

The problem with Latinos gravitating to community colleges, said Mr. Fry, is that “on average, if a student wants to complete a bachelor’s degree, they are more likely to succeed if they start at a four-year school.” He added, “The plum in higher education, in terms of the labor market, is for students to get four-year bachelor’s degrees.”

Part of the difficulty may be finances. A large number of Latino students live in low-income households. The U.S. Bureau of the Census reports that in 2008, 23.2 percent of Latinos lived in poverty.

Mr. Fry said Latinos tend to go to community colleges, in part, because they are concentrated in states—including California, Florida, New York, and Texas—that have well-developed community college systems. Also, he said, Latinos on average are less academically prepared than students from some other racial and ethnic groups, prompting many to pick community colleges for their less-selective admissions processes.

Youths’ Voices

In addition, the Latino interns gave mixed reports on the helpfulness of their guidance counselors.

Fair Expectations

Doris Gonzalez, a senior at Oregon State University, talks about her experience with high school guidance counselors.

Ms. Gonzalez had a bad experience with one as a high school freshman. “I see something wrong with your schedule. I’m concerned you have five Advanced Placement courses,” Ms. Gonzalez recalled the counselor telling her. She said the counselor asked her to sign up for regular classes instead. But Ms. Gonzalez, accompanied by her parents, approached a second guidance counselor at her high school, and that one let Ms. Gonzalez enroll in the AP classes.

What’s more, it was a recruiter for the federal College Assistance Migrant Program, she said, who told her how to land scholarship money, apply for financial aid, and find housing so she could go to Oregon State. She is a senior majoring in philosophy.

By contrast, without the help of his high school counselor, Jefrey Velasquez, 20, who was an intern for U.S. Rep. José E. Serrano, D-N.Y., this summer, said he likely would have gone to community college. Instead, he chose Mount St. Mary College, in Newburgh, N.Y., where he is a junior majoring in history.

The son of immigrants from Honduras, Mr. Velasquez was born and raised in the Bronx borough of New York City by a single mom who works as a home attendant for the elderly. She attended high school in Honduras but never went to college. Mr. Velasquez didn’t know English until he went to school.

He said he and his high school counselor, an African-American born in the Bronx, “kind of clicked.” While Mr. Velasquez didn’t think he could afford a four-year school, his guidance counselor convinced him otherwise. He helped Mr. Velasquez get a scholarship and land a post as a resident assistant.

Seeking Solutions

A report released by Public Agenda this past spring, “Can I Get a Little Advice Here?,” depicts the high school guidance system as “overstretched.” On average, the report said, one guidance counselor serves 460 students.

Public Agenda, a nonprofit research organization in New York City, concluded, based on its survey of 600 young adults, that “the judgments young people make about their high school counselors are often harsh, considerably harsher than the judgments they make about their high school teachers or their advisers at the postsecondary level.”

Access to good advice on going to college also may be particularly crucial for students from low-income or minority families because, unlike students from many middle-class families, they may not be able to ask parents to fill in that counseling gap. Many such students come from families in which neither parent attended college.

The knowledge that college guidance may be lacking for many students has led some researchers to look into what approaches can effectively supplement the support that guidance counselors provide.

Researchers at the Oakland, Calif.-based Berkeley Policy Associates, for example, were commissioned by the Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences to determine what it might take to get students into four-year state schools in California—particularly students who had the academic preparation to be admitted but lacked information about the application process.

The study connected high school students attending the Los Angeles Unified School District with college mentors. The mentors helped the students, starting at the end of their junior year, with steps such as writing and revising an essay and applying for federal financial aid for admission to universities in the California State or University of California systems.

The study found that before the intervention was launched, 50 percent of the students in LAUSD who were qualified to attend the four-year state schools weren’t going, according to Jacqueline Berman, the project director for the study, which began in 2006. “These kids don’t need remedial math and reading. They just need to know how to get into college and how to afford it,” she said.

Ms. Berman said that fewer than a third of African-American and Latino students from the district who were eligible for admission to the California four-year universities ended up there.

Of the 2,500 students identified as being eligible for admission, 1,000 were assigned to mentors and 1,500 were not. The researchers tried to assign paid mentors, who were either undergraduate or graduate students from nearby colleges, to high schoolers with whom they shared a similar background. The intervention cost about $1,000 per student.

The researchers concluded that the strategy was effective in increasing the number of students going to California State or University of California universities.

“The good news is it’s a relatively small gap to bridge. We had higher impacts for kids who were Spanish-speaking and whose parents didn’t go to college,” Ms. Berman said.

She said that the study indicates that a low-cost intervention provided over a rather short period of time can increase the proportion of students who attend four-year colleges or universities.

Special coverage of district and high school reform and its impact on student opportunities for success is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the August 11, 2010 edition of Education Week as Latino Students Less Likely to Select Four-Year Colleges

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