The Graduation Gap – Why Latino Men Aren’t Getting Their Fair Share of College Degrees

In this photo taken May 22, 2010, Brownie Sibrian, waits to enter a Latino graduation celebration, sponsored by the Latino Student Assn. and MEChA, about a week before graduation, on the campus of Whittier College in Whittier, Calif. AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

“Education can be a catalyst to achieving a wide variety of goals,” says University of Phoenix faculty member Dr. Chris Mendoza. Mendoza’s life story is testament to that statement: Though he graduated high school reading at a “seventh or eighth grade level,” through application and hard work he moved up the educational ladder, earning a college degree (University of Texas at El Paso, 1981), an MBA, and a doctorate in business administration (University of Phoenix, 2007).

He is now a successful executive who heads the recruiting and marketing department for a division of a Fortune 200 financial services company.

Stories like Mendoza’s are becoming more common as Latino immigrants come to the U.S., make a better living, and send their children to college. Though the situation is improving, Latinos still have yet to catch up to other ethnicities in educational achievement. Latinos are the least educated major population group in the nation, with Latino males only having an average of 10.6 years of schooling, compared with an average of 12.2 years for black males and 13.3 years for white males.1 Only 11% of Latinos ages 25 and over have a bachelor’s degree, versus 29% of whites and 25% of other non-Hispanics.2

The problem is not that Latinos are failing to attend college, or that they lack understanding of the value of an education. In fact, only Asian high school graduates attend college at higher rates than do Latinos.3 Nearly 9 out of 10 (88%) Hispanics ages 18 to 25 say that college is important for getting ahead in life, and 77% say their parents think going to college is the most important thing they can do after high school.4 The issue of concern is that too many Latinos are leaving college without earning a degree.

Also of interest is the fact that Latino women are outpacing Latino men in terms of educational attainment. In 2006, for example, only 41% of Latino undergraduates were male.5 This disparity is all the more startling given that the gender gap seems to be leveling off for males of other ethnicities.6

In part, the difference in Latinos’ and Latinas’ educational achievement can be explained by the fact that more Latinas go back to school as adults (ages 25 and up). But many other factors-cultural, societal, and economic-intertwine to explain both the gender gap and why Latinos are not earning postsecondary degrees at a rate proportional to other ethnic groups. Many Latino Men Feel Pressure to Enter the Workforce Rather than Pursue a Degree

Most Latino students are nontraditional students: Many are over 25, attend school part-time, opt for two-year programs rather than four-year ones, and have parents, children, spouses, or other family members to support.7 The selfsame factors that make a student nontraditional, however, have been identified as risk factors for degree noncompletion by the U.S. Department of Education.8

And a large number of these students work while attending school, which may be one reason why they opt to attend school part-time. In many low-income or working-class immigrant families, young people feel a responsibility to contribute to the family’s income as soon as they are old enough to work. A sizeable proportion of young immigrants drop out of high school in order to work full time. (Second-generation Latinos ages 16 to 19, in contrast, are four times more likely to be in school and not working at all than immigrants from their same age group.)9 Nearly three-quarters of 16- to 25-year old Latinos who had ended their education while in or shortly after high school say they did so in order to support their families.10 This emphasis on work may be one reason fewer Hispanic men than women attain college degrees.

“For Latino men, the pressure to enter the workforce is strong,” says Daniel Villao, State Director of the California Construction Academy at the University of California, Los Angeles Labor Center, a member of the Board of Directors for the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance, Accounting, and Related Business Fields, and a University of Phoenix alumnus (MBA 2008). “Traditionally, girls have been expected to get an education and get married. They have not been expected to be the head of a household or contribute [financially] in any meaningful way.”

“This means that, without intending to, we have created a wonderful wave of bright young Latinas coming into their own through the educational system in the U.S.,” says Villao, whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from Ecuador in 1963. “This has created a significant opportunity for young women to be plugged into career ladders in a way that has never existed for young Hispanic men.” First- and Second-Generation Americans More Likely to Attend College than Immigrants

A highly significant determinant of whether or not a Latino will pursue higher education is how long he or his family have been in the U.S. Families that have been in the U.S. longer are more likely to send their children to college. Only 29% of immigrant Latinos ages 18 to 25 say they plan to get a college degree, versus 60% of U.S.-born Latinos of the same age group.11 (As further proof of the cultural differences between immigrant and native-born Latinos, consider that 60% percent of 18- to 25-year-olds of all ethnicities want to attend college, the same percentage as U.S.-born Latinos.12) As 35% of Latino youth are foreign-born, this means that millions of young Latinos do not see college in their future.13

“The experience of someone who is an immigrant is very different from someone who is a first-generation or 1.5 generation [someone who emigrates as a child or young teenager],” Mendoza says. “Immigrants may not have role models for succeeding in school in their families. If they’re struggling financially, the decision whether to go to school or earn money is a clear one: The sons or daughters need to work to support the family.”

“In the latter case,” he continues, “the economic condition of the family has likely improved to the point where they don’t have to worry about the basics, like having somewhere to live and putting food on the table, and can think about things like preparing their kids for college, helping them to have good SAT scores, and encouraging them to take science and math and AP classes.” Lack of Information and Role Models May Discourage Latinos from Attending College

Many Latinos, especially those who are immigrants or the children of immigrants, lack the cultural capital-knowledge about how to apply for and succeed in college-that students from more privileged backgrounds enjoy. First-generation college students are at greater risk for dropping out simply because they do not have the experiences of friends and family members to guide them through the higher education system. They may not know how to write a college admissions essay, register for courses, interact with professors, write long term papers, or schedule their study time-things that are second nature for students who have been expecting to go to college since early childhood. Furthermore, immigrants and their children may mistakenly believe that they are not “college material.”

“There’s a lack of information about education [among many Latinos], a lack of understanding about what an advanced degree can help you accomplish in life,” Villao says. “If your mother and father are working-class folks who never had anyone in the family complete high school, they might see university studies as something for people with money and means, and not as something their family can aspire to.”

Cultural differences may also make Latinos reluctant to apply for financial aid, Mendoza says. “Hispanics have a stigma about borrowing money,” he says. “In our culture, you live within your means and you don’t exceed that. If you talk to a family that makes a modest living about borrowing money to send their child to school, it’s a foreign conversation to them. They don’t want to spend money that doesn’t belong to them, or be stuck with a loan they might not be able to repay, even though the potential advantages might outweigh the drawbacks.” He points out, however, that families that have been in the U.S. longer are much more receptive to the idea of borrowing money to pay for school. The Right High School Can Make All the Difference

Contributing to the problem of low graduation rates among Hispanic students is the fact that 70% of Latinos are enrolled in predominantly minority high schools where the quality of teaching and resources may not be as high as in schools with higher percentages of Caucasian students.14

Mendoza’s life story is a testament to the often drastic differences between high schools that serve mainly white students versus those that serve mainly minorities. He attended a high school in El Paso that was predominantly Hispanic. In the 1970s, when the El Paso Independent School District was sued for discrimination due to its inequitable distribution of Hispanic students, Mendoza, along with students from 50 to 60 other families, was moved to a predominantly white high school across town.

“The difference in the educational experience was like night and day,” he remembers. “I was just not prepared, and I had a tough time.”

But going to a high school where students saw themselves as college-bound proved inspirational: “It was different being in a classroom with kids who had grown up with parents and family members who had gone to college,” he says. “I felt left out when friends talked about where they’d be going to college. My complacency was shaken-I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something.’ “

At his new high school, Mendoza also met a teacher who encouraged him to pursue higher education. “My journalism teacher, Mrs. Margaret Slaughter, made a difference,” he says. “I was motivated and inspired by her support. One day she asked me if I was going to college and I didn’t know what to answer-I didn’t think that I could. She kept asking me whether I was interested and if I had applied.” Her words sank in, as even though Mendoza graduated high school “with a low GPA and poor SAT scores,” he decided to attend college. What Schools Can Do to Reach Out to Latinos

The Latino workforce in the U.S. is growing rapidly: The number of working age Hispanics is projected to increase by 18 million between 2000 and 2025.15 However, without higher education, Latinos will not be able to fill the talent gap left by the retiring Baby Boom generation. It is therefore crucial that institutions of higher education reach out to this key demographic.

Colleges and universities that are serious about attracting the Latino community need to start getting their message out early, Villao says. “They can create the desire, plant the seed to help folks understand their opportunities beyond high school. They can start summer programs that tie local high schools to colleges and create experience trips that let students visit campus locations and be exposed to college level work and see how students interact.”

“Educating young people about the fact that higher education is accessible to them is really critical,” he adds. “It’s incumbent upon society to show young Latinos that they do have access to college, and that there are support systems. Educators can show them the pathway out of poverty is much easier than it was for those who came before them.”

“We need to help families understand they ought to paint that dream [of a college education] for their sons and daughters,” Mendoza says. “Universities have to do a better job with outreach.”

“Open-door institutions serve an important need,” he continues. “It’s because I went to an open-enrollment college that I was able to be educated.”

Villao is optimistic about the future of America’s Latinos. “We’re progressing much more rapidly than people thought we would,” he says. “Those of us who are first-generation students have used education as a tool for success, and we can now turn around and create networks of opportunity for those who come after us.”

UOPX Knowledge Network


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