Friday, September 04, 2009

White House Panel on Latino Education Hears Concerns About College-Attainment Rate

September 2, 2009
White House Panel on Latino Education Hears Concerns About College-Attainment Rate
U.S. Department of EducationJuan Sepúlveda, director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans.

By Jennifer Gonzalez

The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans, a working group within the U.S. Department of Education, stands to gain prominence under a new administration that has made college attainment for all Americans one of its priorities.

Juan Sepúlveda, the office's director, is holding "community conversations" around the country to gather information about how to improve educational attainment for Latinos, the nation's largest minority group, and about what role his office should play in that endeavor.

Since July, he has met with hundreds of Latino business and community leaders, parents, students, faculty members, and staff members of various social services and faith-based organizations to hear their advice, concerns and ideas. By the time he wraps up the community meetings in early October, he will have visited 18 states and Puerto Rico.

The information gleaned from those conversations will serve as the foundation for a new presidential executive order that will govern the initiative under the Obama administration. The initiative was originally created in 1990 to improve federal efforts to promote quality education for Hispanic Americans, and is renewed under a new executive order by each new administration.

Community colleges recently were thrust into the spotlight when President Obama made them the centerpiece of his broader goal for the nation to have the world's highest proportion of college graduates by 2020. He called on community colleges to produce five million more graduates by that year and proposed to spend $12-billion over 10 years to improve programs, courses, and facilities at two-year institutions. As a result, Latinos stand to benefit greatly: When they attend college, more than half begin at a community college.

Mr. Sepúlveda spoke with The Chronicle here on Tuesday after holding a community conversation at the Community College of Philadelphia. Here are excerpts from that interview.

Q. How do you see the role and work of the White House Initiative evolving?

A. Our initiative is going to be different than previous administrations' in the sense that we are not setting the agenda. As you know, President Obama was a community organizer. We want to connect first with the people who are working on these issues. We know that every single issue has been solved by someone in some way. We want to make sure that those ideas are shared with others. We want to act as a facilitator and start those communications.

Q. What have you been hearing from the different groups that you have spoken with?

A. My impression so far is that people are worried. They are especially worried about the lack of a college-going culture among Latinos. The rate of college-degree -attainment among Latinos has basically leveled off. Only about 11 or 12 percent of Latinos have a college degree. The number used to be 9 percent. We [Latinos] are in the worst situation among all the minority groups.

As part of that, people are also concerned about what is happening at the high-school level. There are low expectations for our students. We hear stories about counselors encouraging students to go into vocational training rather than attending college. The truth is that we need to change what is happening at the high-school level even before we can start to address the problems of college attainment.

One of the most promising solutions is the early-college or middle-college program, as some call it. It allows students to earn college credit while still in high school, but more importantly, the students start to develop relationships with those at the college. They meet counselors. They meet professors. They meet other students. That helps with the transition from high school to college.

Q. What is the implication of an uneducated Latino population in our country?

A. This country needs Latinos to be educated. We are already 50 million plus. Demographers predict that our numbers will only grow. We will become the backbone of this country. We are already seeing that in some parts of the country. California's today is America's tomorrow.

Having an uneducated Latino population is a challenge especially for work-force levels. Some communities are already struggling to fill jobs because their population is predominantly Latino and not educated.

Q. You have said that when Latinos do attend college, they usually start at a community college. If that's the case, what can community colleges do to bolster Latino graduation rates at their institutions?

A. The answer to that question is obviously still evolving. That is why we are traveling around the country and gathering information.

However, there has to be a recognition that the profile of the Latino college student is different than the profile of other community- college students. The Latino student is usually older, has a family, and works while going to college. They are not the 18-year-old that just finished high school and is going to college. They bring a different life experience with them when they go to college. Through the president's plan, we hope that all students, including Latinos, will benefit.

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