Latino Students: A Tough Present, a Brighter Future

While the current number of college graduates in the Latino community is dismal, there is help, support and the example of a growing number of individuals who are succeeding in higher education.

The future is bright for Latino college students (iStockphoto)
The future is bright for Latino college students (iStockphoto)

Juan Herrejon was a quiet kid who grew up in a small Texas town. Rosaura Estrada helped out at her family's Mexican restaurant, and Omar Gomez's dad was a contractor in the physically demanding construction business. They have more in common than being Latinos; they are the first ones in their families to go to college regardless of the odds stacked against them.

The rates at which Latino students are graduating from college can be disheartening. The latest data reveals that Hispanics lag extraordinarily behind when it comes to finishing up college and earning a degree. "The numbers show that Hispanic students are the least educated among all ethnic communities in the United States," says Dr. Laura Rendon, professor in the Higher Education Program at the University of Texas-San Antonio. Dr. Rendon found that in a 2010 study, 52% of all Asian students graduated from college, along with 30% among Whites and 20% among Blacks, while only 14% of Latino students earned a university degree*. And of that percentage, the majority of Latino students entering college are the first ones in their families to do so.

What's causing the disparity?

"No one in the family knows how to go to college," says Dr. Adrian Ramirez, director of the CLASE program at Fresno St. University, of Hispanic families with no history of attending college. Dr. Ramirez, the son of migrant workers who himself was the first person in his family to attend a university, agrees with experts on the three major obstacles that face first-generation students:

Money: When there's no college education precedence in the family, no monies are allocated early on for expenses. "The lack of wealth is getting in the way of going to college for the Latino student," says Dr. Rendon, who also believes that parents that have gone to college and know the costs involved are also more likely to set an education fund aside for their children.

Knowledge: According to Dr. Rendon, there's also a general lack of knowledge about the college experience in families of first generation students, making the prospect of going to college sometimes insurmountable. There's no easily available information on how to get into or stay in school. Even basics like not knowing about available financial aid or academic tutoring get in the way of having a successful college experience.

Family expectations: Latino students have to deal with culturally-specific family expectations that sometimes get in the way of meeting their college responsibilities. According to the experts, they are usually expected to continue with work if there's a family business, take care of grandparents' needs or look after the younger children regardless of how this could affect their grades or attendance. Their choice to put college over family needs is usually met with disapproval.

Funny stories, sound advice in La Vida As We Know It

Been there, done that, and it works!

The stories of successful Hispanic college students are also the stories of normal, everyday young Latinos. Today, Estrada (University of Texas at Austin) is a civil engineering intern with Exxon; Gomez a junior petroleum engineer working at Haliburton, and Herrejon a Pre-Med student from UT-Austin as well.

For these students, getting educated about education was part of the solution to not becoming another statistic. "You need to get educated about the whole process; know where to find the finances you'll need. Many [Latino students in my high school] didn't go to college due to the lack of awareness of the financial resources available to them," says Herrejon.

Yet, all the finances in the world cannot give hopefuls the intangibles needed, like the ganas or passion to see an academic career through. "I like to challenge myself; you can't be afraid of hard work," says Estrada, who chose to take the hardest courses she could in high school. The civil engineering intern found her calling when she participated in a summer camp for high school students sponsored by the Equal Opportunity in Engineering program. She and fellow engineer Gomez took advantage of the resources offered, and later on became leaders in student professional organizations.

Hope rises

The number of colleges and universities across the country developing initiatives to answer the specific needs of the Latino college student is rising. Most of these programs are specifically aiming to serve those who are first-generation.

  • California State University, Fresno has a Title V program called CLASE (Commitment to Latina/o Academic Success & Excellence) that serves as an academic resource and financial aid information center for Hispanics

  • The Tomás Rivera Center at the University of Texas-San Antonio offers academic tutoring, writing and math skills sessions.

  • The Puente Project, sponsored by the University of California Regents, has a strong cohorts program where students are grouped to take English classes together.

  • Besides offering academic advising and serve as a clearinghouse for financial aid, the EOE at the University of Texas at Austin's Cockrell School of Engineering works closely with major corporations, networking them with the schools budding engineering majors for internships and future job opportunities.

A brighter future

While the present condition of the Hispanic college student seems critical, schools are answering the call by offering programs that could make the difference in a Latino student's life. But the future can already be seen today, represented by the students and professionals who are leading the way for a new generation of college-educated, successful Latinos.

*Data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (2010). Status and trends in the education of racial and ethnic minorities. Indicator 27. Educational Attainment.

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