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Efforts hope to raise Hispanics' 50% college graduation rate

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Efforts hope to raise Hispanics' 50% college graduation rate

  • Socorro Carrizosa
    University of ArizonaSocorro Carrizosa
  • Andrea Romero
    University of ArizonaAndrea Romero

As Saturday's graduation approaches at UA, about half the university's Hispanic students won't make it to their degrees: that's nearly 10 percent lower than white students.

In Arizona, the three public universities graduate about half of their Hispanic students – sometimes even less – within six years.

The University of Arizona and Arizona State University have graduation rates for Hispanics of about 50 percent, while Northern Arizona University’s rates are about 45 percent. This is similar to the national average of 51 percent. The rate for white students is about 59 percent at the UA and 57 percent at ASU, with the national average at 60 percent.

An estimated 46.9 million Hispanics live in the United States, leaving America with the second-highest Hispanic population in the world behind Mexico. However, only 62 percent have a high school education and only 3 percent, about 3.6 million, had a bachelor’s degree or higher as of 2008.

That means only 12 percent of full-time college students were Hispanic, despite them being the largest minority in America, at 15.4 percent.

Why Hispanics don't graduate

"There are two big things (that prevent Hispanics from graduating)," said Andrea Romero, University of Arizona associate professor of Mexican-American and Raza studies.

"The first one is economics. There's an overrepresentation of Latino students that are working compared to white students and with the increase of tuition and lack of student aid, it's an issue. The second one is if they don't feel welcome on campus. They might not be as similar to the majority of other students, for economic reasons, for cultural reasons."

Romero, who also teaches family and consumer science, noted that a number of students in Mexican-American and Raza studies also feel excluded and report racism or discrimination on campus. She said students are worried that in light the passage of Arizona's new law cracking down on illegal immigration, which requires local law enforcement to question immigration status of those in custody when given "reasonable suspicion," it could get worse.

A national study by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research cited institutional practices as another reason for the growing gap in graduation rates.

Reports like this inspired J. Luke Wood, co-coordinator of the Arizona Education Policy Fellowship Program and post-doctoral student in educational leadership and policy studies at Arizona State University, to figure out how far back the educational gap goes.

In a 2009 Arizona State University report, The Critical Condition of Hispanic Education in Arizona, Wood and two colleagues dissected some of the reasons why Hispanics lag in education.

Commissioned by local policymakers, Wood said he hopes reports like his put things into perspective for education officials and residents alike.

"If you have an education system that is not serving one part of the population, that isn't just their problem, it's everyone's problem," said Wood.

Problems have early beginnings

Those problems start as early as preschool, Wood said.

“Cost, lack of transportation, and availability of health care . . .  and lack of information on the positive outcomes related to preschool enrollment” can deter Latino families from enrolling their children in preschool, according to the study. These same problems can persist throughout a child's academic career.

In 2007, 75 percent of Arizona's Hispanic children younger than 6 were considered low income. That is 200,000 children compared with 30 percent of white children, or roughly 60,000. That same year, 69 percent of Hispanics younger than 18 lived in low-income circumstances.

In Arizona, nearly 58 percent of fourth-grade Hispanics were below reading proficiency, double that of whites. That number improves to 50 percent by eighth grade. Hispanics have the second highest dropout rates in Arizona, with 30 percent of Hispanic females and 41 percent of Hispanic males leaving high school early.

Norma Otero, community director of Roskruge Bilingual Elementary School, 501 E. Sixth St., guides 535 students through courses offered in English and Spanish.

"Our goal is that when they leave here, they go with high school credits under their belt," Otero said.  "We are a diamond in the rough. We have mentors come in from the UA so our kids are getting that experience and they have the people coming in who know about college life. That's another door open to children to get to walk into a university with a mentor."

Another program, Teach For America, places post-graduate students in low-income communities to teach, and to convince students that they should expect to continue their education.

"We see that many of our students are not being expected to go to college," said Robin Petersen, recruiting director for Teach for America at UA and ASU.

"Right now (in Arizona) we have a terrible graduating rate, people aren't having collegiate success . . . and (Teach for America) is interested in long-term change. We want to get educators in the program, (but, more importantly) we need people who are going to be advocates for education in the community. We need people who are actually going to do something about it."

Home away from home

Campus groups and organizations also help students navigate the college waters.

"This is kind of a home base. This is kind of student's home away from home," said Socorro Carrizosa, director of the Chicano-Hispano Student Affairs center at the University of Arizona.

Carrizosa noted the missions of cultural centers like hers are to reach out to minority students and provide a sense of community on campus.

"This might be the first time they might have felt different that everyone else," she said. "To be the only (Hispanic) in your class is something new to some students; they are not expecting to see themselves as different."

Carrizosa’s center offers students a refuge, and also a jumping board to "take ownership of the entire campus."

"A student said to me, 'You know, even if I'm not here (at Chicano-Hispano Student Affairs) all the time, when I'm stressed I can come here. Even if it's for five minutes, that's all it takes.' She just needed to be around people that fed her spirit."

This sense of community on campus is bolstered by the work of national organizations like the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, which works with a "pipeline of beneficiaries, working with parents on the junior-high and high-school level to figure out how to pay for (education) and getting the information to the kids," said Kristan Kirsh, national communications and public relations manager for the Hispanic Scholarship Fund.

The group supports Hispanic students at four-year universities and has awarded more than $300 million in scholarships to more than 100,000 students, two thirds of which were the first in their family to go to college.

Besides economic support, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund also has retention and employment programs coordinated with alumni.

President Obama donated $125,000 of his $1.4 million 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winnings to the fund.

For Andrea Romero helping Hispanic students is a necessary goal and it starts with the simplest of steps.

"Just making some of the programs that (the university) has already more accessible and more publication of Chicano student affairs," said Romero.

She noted that having those in the university community as a guiding force can help boost comfort and success for minority students.

"If those direct messages came from faculty and administration, those kinds of things can go a long way," she said.

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