For Hispanics, Barriers Can Complicate College
The New York Times
February 10, 2003
By MIREYA NAVARRO
In high school in the Bronx, Sonia Gil was an A and B student who never doubted
that she would someday be a college graduate. Her parents, a factory worker and
a homemaker from the Dominican Republic, had hammered into their 11 children the
importance of an education.
But a decade later, Ms. Gil has yet to complete a bachelor's degree. She
attended a community college, then
dropped out to work full time. She enrolled again, got an associate degree in
liberal arts and transferred to a
four-year college. But she dropped out again.
At 27, Ms. Gil now goes to Lehman College every day - to her job as a secretary.
With a baby due this month and still many credits away from graduation, she is
one more student contributing to a college graduation rate for Hispanics that is
the lowest among the major ethnic groups.
"You need to be there 100 percent," she said of the lessons she had learned in
her efforts to get a B.A. in social
work, which continue. "If you're not ready, you find yourself leaving school."
Only 16 percent of Latino high school graduates earn a four-year college degree
by age 29, compared with 37
percent of non-Hispanic whites and 21 percent of African-Americans, according to
a recent study of census
data by the Pew Hispanic Center.
Experts say that Hispanic students battle many of the problems that other
minority students do - the lack of role
models and practical college advice at home, as well as inadequate preparation
But they also face additional barriers of language and culture, particularly an
attachment to the extended family,
the experts say. Latino teenagers often stay home while attending college,
making it all the more likely that they
get caught up in their families' financial needs.
"With living at home often comes the sense of having to contribute and be one of
the wage earners in the extended family," said Roberto Suro, Pew center
Ms. Gil, who lives with her fiancÚ in the Bronx, said that while her parents
emphasized education, they balked at the idea that she and her sisters would go
away to college. "Nobody is going to be there for you," they were told. And once
she decided to take a year off after high school, the pressure was on to start
pulling her weight financially.
Hispanic students are more likely to go to college part time than non-Hispanic
blacks or whites. They are also more likely to attend community colleges, lured
by cheaper tuition, more flexible schedules to accommodate outside jobs, and
courses in fields like computer science and nursing, which offer a quicker path
to a paycheck.
Going to school part time, however, is often a prelude to dropping out, because
these students are less engaged in their studies, college administrators say.
And while a community college can be a vehicle to higher education, for many
Latino students the road begins and ends there.
Mariella Reyes, Christela Morales and Alejandrina Lizardo, Mexican-American
18-year-olds and best friends from East Los Angeles, started full time at East
Los Angeles Community College last semester but soon grew frustrated. They said
the course work, and their classmates, were too fast for them. All three dropped
most of their classes but have enrolled full time this semester to try again.
Ms. Lizardo said she realized now that "my teachers in high school didn't teach
After cutting back in school, Ms. Lizardo and Ms. Morales started part-time jobs
in stores. Ms. Morales, who restocks and folds merchandise at a department store
for $6.75 an hour, said that her job left no time for homework. "But what's my
option?" she said. "My family is not set with money."
Some students complained about parents who came to this country to work and want
their children to do the same - as soon as possible. In some families, girls in
particular are expected to marry young, or at least not leave home until they
"My mother at first said, `You have to start working like everyone else,' " said
Estrellita Garcia, 20, a Spanish
major at California State University in Los Angeles.
"I told her `O.K., I'll start at McDonald's,' but without an education you'd
have a low-paying job all your life,"
said Ms. Garcia, who transferred from East Los Angeles Community College and is
a full-time student. "Now she's more supportive, I guess."
At City University of New York, many students complain about a requirement that
students pass exit tests in basic skills before going on to junior year or
getting an associate degree. The test seeks to ensure that students
graduate with an acceptable level of academic literacy, including writing and
speaking English, but some critics
say it is an artificial barrier and undermines students who do not do well on
"There are too many obstacles for the students," said Gisell Savinon, 23, a
former student at Hostos Community College in the Bronx who struggled with
English proficiency. She failed some of the tests repeatedly but is now on her
way to a four-year college.
Colleges have come up with a host of programs to entice and retain Hispanic
students, from "Latino floors" in freshman dormitories to orientation courses.
Institutions like the University of California at Los Angeles are also
aggressively working with community
colleges to increase transfers, something many private schools are doing to
With the right support, administrators at U.C.L.A. and other institutions noted,
graduation rates for Latino
students are comparable to those for other groups.
Rafael Cortez, 24, has hit the bumps that sidetrack many students, but he has
held on. Now a senior and sociology major at U.C.L.A., he plans to pursue a
master's degree in counseling.
But it took Mr. Cortez a while to get it together. He languished at a community
college for four years, attending
part time while he worked. He said the minimum-wage job at his father's factory
eventually gave him a new perspective.
"You see hard-working people who are just stuck there," he said. "It made me
realize, this is what happens when you don't go to college."
The transfer to U.C.L.A. was "lonely and intimidating," he said. But he now
works as a peer counselor at East Los Angeles Community College, trying to
attract more transfers to U.C.L.A. The biggest difference between those who drop
out and those who go on, he tells his recruits, is that those still in school
"have made the decision that to make more money and have a career, this is the
way to do it.
"It's just a matter of actually doing it."