October 1, 2007
College leaders are mistaken if they believe that cultural differences make Hispanic high-school students, especially recent immigrants, less likely to attend college than their white counterparts, the president of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute told community-college trustees and presidents on Friday.
"It is not culture but cognition -- a lack of understanding of the American education system on the part of parents that are foreign born," said Harry P. Pachon, who is both a professor of public policy at the University of Southern California and head of the institute, a nonprofit research group that focuses on issues affecting Hispanic communities.
Mr. Pachon said financial-aid programs in the United States were particularly difficult for Hispanic families to understand. For example, there is no Spanish word for "grant." To bridge that linguistic gap, Mr. Pachon said many colleges refer to grants as "dinero gratis," or free money. While that sounds like an appealing offer, the term doesn't quite capture the American concept of a financial-aid grant.
Mr. Pachon was the day's keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the Association of Community College Trustees here. Several hundred college leaders gathered to hear him speak.
He cautioned them that many myths about Hispanic people in the United States -- including the notion that they are largely undocumented, prefer to speak only Spanish, and are almost entirely low-income -- persist in the popular imagination. Those stereotypes are not supported by research, he said.
The Hispanic population is growing rapidly in the United States, in large part because of legal immigration and because the Hispanic birth rate in the country outstrips that of white Americans.
To reach this growing pool of potential students, Mr. Pachon said, colleges must produce marketing materials in Spanish, employ bilingual staff and faculty members, and market aggressively to Hispanic-Americans through the Internet, Spanish- and English-language television, and other outreach efforts.
The overall college-going rate in the United States -- and the country's economic health -- is at stake, Mr. Pachon said. "Latino education is not a Latino issue," he said. "It's an American issue."
Earlier in the day, at another session, several trustees outlined ways that Palomar Community College District and Mira Costa College, both in northern San Diego County, were working to improve the educational outlook for Hispanic boys.
Trustees at those colleges said they became alarmed four years ago when they realized that, at some high schools, 50 percent or more of Hispanic boys were dropping out. "We can't afford to let that continue," said Mark R. Evilsizer, a member of the Palomar district's Governing Board.
The colleges started a nonprofit group called Encuentros: Hombre a Hombre, which is Spanish for "coming together, man to man," to deal with the dropout problem. The group puts on a career and education conference for about 500 Hispanic boys each year, and holds a smaller leadership academy through a partnership with California State University at San Marcos.
But the most potentially wide-reaching project is a high-school and middle-school curriculum that the colleges developed in conjunction with a local school district. The courses, based on a book that is also called Encuentros: Hombre a Hombre, will be geared toward boys and will teach Hispanic culture and history. The high-school course is expected to satisfy a language-arts requirement needed to matriculate at public universities in the state.
The curriculum is awaiting final state approval, but one middle-school teacher already incorporated parts of it into one of his courses. The results were promising. The boys' grade-point averages climbed from an average of 2.19 to 2.61 after taking the course, and their disciplinary referrals dropped markedly.
Mr. Evilsizer, of Palomar, said the curriculum would allow Encuentros to reach many more Hispanic boys than the group can through the conference and the summer institute. "I think our impact is going to be greatest here," he said. "As trustees, this is something we can do. We can broker partnerships within our community."
© 2007 by The Chronicle of Higher Education