Sunday, April 03, 2005


For Latinos, path to college is steep one
Cultural and financial hurdles slow state's efforts to close the gap

By Laura Heinauer, Ralph K.M. Haurwitz
Sunday, April 03, 2005

LOS FRESNOS — Second in an occasional series

Every senior at Los Fresnos High School has applied to college, and more than three-fourths already have been accepted. That would be an impressive achievement at virtually any public high school, but it is an astonishing one here in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, one of the poorest areas in the nation.

It required years of selling the idea of college not only to the students, nearly all of whom are Hispanic, but also to their parents, many of whom didn't complete high school. It required dragging students out of class to work on applications. And it required working side by side with parents to help them fill out financial aid forms.

True, most of the colleges to which the students applied accept virtually all comers. And it remains to be seen how many students will actually enroll, and how many of those will go on to earn degrees.

The pride is nonetheless palpable at Los Fresnos High, in a town that sits between fruit stands and Gulf Coast beaches, in the heart of the Valley. Nearly half of the students who graduated from Los Fresnos in 2003 enrolled that fall in college, and school officials are confident that the state's follow-up tallies will show even higher enrollment rates.

But Los Fresnos is hardly typical. The reality is that Hispanics in Texas, to a large extent, are missing out on educational opportunities. Just over a third of Hispanic high school graduates go on to college promptly, compared with about half of whites, and they are less likely to finish on time. The disparities emerge early in the education pipeline, with Hispanics dropping out of high school at triple the rate of whites.

These problems have been apparent for years, but new findings show that the scope and implications are more severe than has previously been recognized. Last year, for example, only one in 14 Hispanic students in Texas who took the ACT Assessment, a college-entrance examination, did well enough to be deemed ready for college-level work in English, math and science. One in four white students met that standard.

Perhaps even more worrisome, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has found that Hispanic enrollment in higher education is rising too slowly to meet goals that the board set five years ago in an effort to achieve parity with whites by 2015.

And to compound matters, the faster-than-expected increase in the Hispanic population means that the goals weren't set high enough. It now appears that the state will need to have 676,000 Hispanics enrolled in 2015 rather than 588,000 under the prior goal, according to the coordinating board. About 309,000 Hispanics were enrolled in public or private institutions of higher learning last year.

"We are falling way behind in achieving our Hispanic targets," said Raymund Paredes, the state's commissioner of higher education. "And now that we are going to have to reset our targets at an even higher level, the danger is we're going to fall even further behind."

But just as the larger nature of the challenge is becoming clear, budget cuts contemplated at the state and federal levels could make it even harder for Hispanics to go to college.

A college-readiness program that has helped many students at Los Fresnos High would be abolished if President Bush's proposed budget is approved by Congress. State legislators, meanwhile, are poised to reduce the amount of money available for financial aid grants, which do not have to be repaid, in favor of loans. Although the loans would be forgiven if students graduate in four years with at least a B average, critics say such a strategy would harm many Hispanics, who often take longer to graduate.

Blacks also lag whites in many measures of educational attainment, but their prospects are somewhat brighter than those of Hispanics in a few important respects. For example, proportionately more blacks in Texas hold college degrees than do Hispanics. And black enrollment rates in public universities rose significantly in a recent 10-year period, while Hispanic rates declined slightly.

The implications of all this are dire, and not just for Hispanics. The average college graduate earns about $1 million more during his or her career than a high school graduate. Hispanic household income in Texas is about $17,000 a year lower than white household income. Hispanics are currently a third of the state's population, but they are the fastest-growing segment and are expected to constitute more than half by 2030, give or take a few years.

The stakes are clear, said Steve Murdock, the state demographer and a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. "If you do not change those disparities, you become a poorer and less educated society," he said.

Such a society needs more social services but generates fewer tax dollars to pay for them. It is less able to attract economic development. It has more crime and more disease. In short, the state's future will hinge in part on how well the Hispanic population is educated.

"The state has to be able to compete in the global marketplace," said María Robledo Montecel, executive director of the San Antonio-based Intercultural Development Research Association, an independent group that studies dropout rates and other trends. "That marketplace is unforgiving to people who don't have the skills and education."

Some heavily Hispanic schools in the state's largest cities have especially low enrollment rates. For example, Austin's Travis High and Fort Worth's Diamond Hill-Jarvis High each sent about one in five graduates to college in 2003, according to the most recent state records. L.G. Pinkston High in Dallas saw just 11 percent enroll.

But nowhere are the social, intellectual and financial obstacles to higher education for Hispanics more stark than in the Valley. High school counselors say a college-going mindset has only recently begun taking hold in the region, and not without resistance.

Seventeen-year-old Yemeli Navarro, one of the 413 seniors at Los Fresnos High who applied to college, illustrates the complexities. Her passion to pursue a career in medicine is obvious.

"I love babies," she said with childlike excitement. "I watch all the shows where they do the real-life deliveries with the blood squirting out. My mom thinks maybe I should be a nurse, but I'm a doer. I only want to be a doctor."

That could be a tough academic challenge. Her score on the ACT was 14. The statewide average for Hispanics last year was about 18, and the statewide average for all students was about 20. A perfect score is 36.

In addition, Yemeli's parents can't afford to help pay for school. So, like most Hispanic students, she would have to juggle studies with work. And because of the financial pressures, many Hispanic students spend too much time working and not enough studying.

And then there is the delicate question of whether Yemeli's family supports her goals. Her father, Carlos, said he would allow her to attend day classes at the University of Texas at Brownsville but would insist she live at home with the rest of the family next to the small engine shop he owns on Texas 100.

"Sometimes I feel like they wish I wouldn't go at all," Yemeli said one recent afternoon between classes. "It's like, when we talk about it, they don't really pay attention."

High school counselors say the close-knit nature of Hispanic family life can make it hard for students to pursue college. Parents are particularly reluctant to lose their oldest daughters, who often help raise siblings.

"A lot of parents are just adamant that their children will not leave the Valley," said Denise Davis, who runs a college-awareness program in the Los Fresnos school district. "They need them to work to support the family. We have to sell the parents the idea of college."

But Antonio Flores, president of the San Antonio-based Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, said it's not that Latino parents don't have high goals for their children's education. "Surveys show they have very high aspirations, but the realities they face work against that," he said.

One of those realities, he said, is that Hispanic families tend to be larger than their white counterparts. That, coupled with a lower household income, means there's less money available per child for tuition, books and other college expenses.

In addition, many Hispanics are reluctant to go into debt — a generally laudable trait but one that can run counter to their long-term interests when it comes to getting a degree and the earning potential that comes with it, said Ricardo Romo, president of UT-San Antonio.

Furthermore, only about half of Hispanic adults in Texas have a high school education. And only about 9 percent have a bachelor's degree, compared with nearly 16 percent of blacks and 30 percent of whites. So Hispanic families have less knowledge and experience dealing with the daunting tasks of applying for college admission and financial aid.

"That's a strike against Hispanic children — a family setting where parents didn't have the benefit of a good education," Flores said.

That setting, in turn, helps explain why Hispanic students often fall behind early.

"We know that a lot of Latino students are reading below grade level in the third grade," Paredes said. "So the fate of our children is sealed at a very early age. (They) fall behind very early and they almost never catch up."

A lack of role models doesn't help. Hispanics are underrepresented in the ranks of public school teachers and college professors, and all too often, they drop out.

"Students who drop out of school are not engaged with and connected with the school, and that is particularly so for Latino students," Robledo Montecel said. "There has to be one adult who works with the student to assure they graduate from high school, whether it's a teacher, counselor, parent or someone else."

All this is compounded by the complexities that many Hispanic students face in daily life. Some are children of migrant workers and therefore live with different relatives. Others don't have Social Security numbers, often because they entered the United States illegally.

"It's all very fragile," said Julia Christensen, who heads a college-awareness program at Port Isabel High School in the Valley. "You get situations like these, and you realize any roadblock could potentially stop them."

The students themselves are acutely aware of the roadblocks.

Griselda Escalone, a senior at Los Fresnos High who has spent the past several summers picking lettuce and green onions on a farm in Ohio, wants to go to Ohio State so she can be near her parents. She worries about the out-of-state tuition.

For Marylynn Garza, another Los Fresnos senior, the desire to become a psychologist is tempered by reluctance to leave her family. "I can't leave my mom because I have two little brothers and someone has to take care of them," she said.

Most students from the Valley who enroll in college wind up at local institutions such as UT-Brownsville and its junior-college cousin on the same campus, Texas Southmost College. For some, the academic struggle is just beginning. Officials say nearly half of the Brownsville-Southmost students must take remedial courses. And only one in five earns an associate's degree or a bachelor's degree in six years.

They also must work to make ends meet. Abraham Ponce, this year's student vice president of administration at UT-Brownsville, said most of his friends hold one or more jobs. Many students live at home, leaving at 7 a.m. and not getting back until 8 or 9 at night.

"Two, three jobs, that's the norm here. Last year's student vice president had three kids and worked," he said. "I see students work for years just to get out of the remedial courses. Graduating in four years would be a miracle for most of us."

But timely graduation is exactly what state lawmakers are demanding. The Legislature is considering a number of proposals intended to create incentives for students to graduate faster, including a reduction in grants and an increase in loans that would be forgiven only if students graduate in four years with at least a B average.

Critics say such a strategy would harm the very students who are least likely to graduate on time, who are most dependent on grants and who often must work one or more jobs while attending classes: Hispanics and blacks.

"Does it make sense to make it more difficult for these students to go to college?" said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston.

Bush's proposal to cut college readiness programs has also raised alarms.

One such program, called GEAR UP — for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs — began encouraging this year's crop of seniors at Los Fresnos High, Port Isabel High and other schools around Texas to think about college since the students were in the seventh grade. Students and school officials say the program is working.

Before the GEAR UP program was established, Los Fresnos did little to track which students filled out college applications, took standardized tests or filled out financial aid forms. Now the school has three full-timers and one part-timer helping students wade through the forms and procedures.

A file on each student includes everything from test scores to personal identification numbers for filling out the federal aid application online. Davis, who leads the Los Fresnos program, even shuttles students to standardized test sites and accompanies them on visits to colleges in South Texas.

Bush's proposed budget would eliminate GEAR UP and two other programs that also seek to encourage economically disadvantaged students to attend college. The three programs together are budgeted at $66 million this year in Texas.

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said in an interview that an Office of Management and Budget review found that the programs weren't effective when students in them were compared with a control group. However, there's no reason Texas and other states couldn't retain such programs in cases where they seem to be working, Spellings said. But education officials in Texas say there's no way the programs could continue in this state without federal money.

A separate, state-funded program with a go-to-college message is decidedly more modest. The state spends $1.5 million to $2.5 million a year on the program, known as the College for Texans Campaign.

Under the program, about 100 "go centers" have been established in high schools, many of them in low-income and minority areas, and promotional spots have been running on radio and TV stations. Proponents had hoped the program would become as widely known as the state's anti-litter campaign, Don't Mess with Texas, but that hasn't happened.

"The destiny of Texas is all connected here in having educated people," said Don Brown, a former commissioner of higher education who is executive director of a private foundation that has raised $1.5 million in cash and $2.8 million in pledges to supplement the state's campaign. "The only way these goals can be realized in a state as large and diverse as Texas is to spread awareness of the problem, awareness of a solution, in such a way that people all over the state agree this is one of most important things that needs to be done."


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