UA goal to attract Latinos is elusive
ARIZONA DAILY STAR
July 26, 2003
By Rhonda Bodfield
It's not going to be easy to increase the University of Arizona's Latino
enrollment by enough to meet President Peter Likins' goal of winning federal
recognition as a Hispanic-serving institution.
The goal is so elusive that few of the UA's peers have achieved it - sometimes
despite great expense.
Of the roughly 190 higher education facilities to get the designation, which can
help free up federal grant money, the vast bulk are community or technical
colleges. Except for a handful, the universities with the designation are
generally vastly smaller than the UA or private institutions.
Nowhere on the list is UCLA, for example, or the University of Texas at Austin
or the University of Colorado - all in Western states with roughly similar
The UA, with 14 percent Hispanic enrollment, leads its sister universities in
Hispanic enrollment in the state. Northern Arizona University and Arizona State
University both hover around 11 percent.
But the climb for the UA will be steep: Every percentage point equals another
300 students. The designation requires that a quarter of students be of Hispanic
Likins concedes that with his retirement looming in three years, he probably
won't be leading the UA when it happens. But he remains convinced it's a worthy
goal - along with strengthening diversity from other ethnic groups for which
there is not yet a comparable federal designation.
"Any university president in these days understands the generation we are now
educating will, when they reach my age, live in a different America. It will be
an age where there's no white majority," Likins said.
As a result, he said, students "will have to be able to deal effectively with
different cultures, different languages, different religions than did people of
Getting there is the trick, full of political pitfalls and difficult social
UA alumnus Peter Vokac, for example, questions whether there will be a detriment
to other students if Hispanic enrollment is made a priority, particularly if
other minority students end up displaced. And he's not sure the goal is even
attainable without some major work in areas Likins has little control over.
"Until the notoriously high dropout rate problem is solved, there's no chance of
getting to this goal," Vokac said.
There are no ready answers to such questions.
The University of California system spent nearly $200 million in 2000 on
outreach programs to lure more minority students after it instituted a
race-blind admissions policy in 1998. Even so, minority enrollment dropped from
26 percent in 1995 to 16 percent.
Meanwhile, a new trend has since surfaced: fewer blacks and Hispanics are
enrolling at UCLA and Berkeley in favor of attending some of the smaller
That jibes with the research findings of Roberto Ibarra, in charge of
coordinating the University of New Mexico's diversity initiative. Almost 30
percent of University of New Mexico students are Hispanic.
Extensive interviews Ibarra conducted with students in the 1990s led him to
conclude that minority students are put off by large, impersonal lecture
"Most of the populations we're dealing with today are from communities that
imprint upon them a more people-oriented environment, and when you don't have
that environment in place, you leave, you drop out, you don't perform well,"
The New Mexico medical school created a secondary track for students that put
more emphasis on small group problem-solving instead of the
It can be more expensive, Ibarra said, but the advantage is that minority
faculty members also tend to like to teach that way, so the medical program is
counted among the most diverse in the country.
New Mexico State University has 41 percent Hispanic enrollment. Gladys
DeNecochea, vice president for student services, notes that New Mexico has the
most heavily Hispanic population in the nation, with 42 percent.
But that can't be the whole reason for the enrollment success, given that
Arizona's Hispanic population portion ranks fourth in the country, at more than
25 percent. DeNecochea says New Mexico State does outreach and has small class
sizes and, consequently, better faculty interaction with students.
There's a program for middle-school girls and their mothers, with the thinking
that family support makes a big difference in accomplishing goals. Plus, there's
the state scholarship program funded with lottery proceeds, which pays tuition
for all full-time students who make a 2.5 grade point average or better their
first semester. About 40 percent of NMSU's Hispanic students are on the lottery
M.J. Utter, a former English teacher who now works as a guidance counselor at
Desert View High School in the Sunnyside district, said a number of her students
are the first in their families to attend college and find the system
overwhelming. Some opt to go to Pima Community College, which is designated a
Hispanic-serving institution, and where they have a higher comfort level than at
"Finances are a big thing, too," she said. "They'll tell me they just can't
afford to go and decide to go to Pima first to save money."
Utter was disappointed when the UA phased out its APEX program, designed to
expose disadvantaged or minority junior high and high school students to the UA
through field trips, tours and mentoring. Instead, parts of the program were
merged into the MESA program, which is similar but puts a heavier emphasis on
math, engineering and science.
Utter had 100 students involved in APEX before it was phased out two years ago.
Only 20 were enrolled in MESA this year.
Arlene Benavidez, a coordinator for the UA's early academic outreach program,
said about 75 percent of the roughly 1,000 MESA participants last year were
Latino. In addition to helping them prepare for college and apply for financial
aid, the program includes activities for parents. The unit has plans to expand
to some elementary schools in a pilot program.
Of the 117 seniors in the program in 2002, Benavidez said, 52 percent enrolled
at the UA. Others may have gone on to other colleges, but weren't tracked.
But the outreach program is still trying to ramp up to previous numbers served.
APEX, which was in more schools and which was more open to other disciplines,
was serving 1,300 students in 2001, compared with MESA's 700. Nine middle
schools previously part of APEX are being phased in for MESA next year.
Laura Luna, 23, graduated from the UA in December.
Neither of her parents went to college, but they impressed upon their children
that education was important. Which is why an older sister graduated from the UA
and Luna's younger brother is in college. And which is why, when a math teacher
told her not to bother applying to the UA, despite her 3.7 grade point average,
and to focus instead on a community college, Luna didn't listen.
"I didn't feel I wasn't going to be able to make it there," said Luna. "But as a
high school student, when you hear it from an adult who went to college, you
believe it. That's one of the largest reasons some Hispanic students will not
even attempt to apply for the UA."
She is now director of youth services for Chicanos Por La Causa, where she helps
students learn computer skills and apply for college.
She wasn't entirely comfortable at the UA at first, she recalls. "When you come
from a small town and when you're Latina, and you come from a close-knit family,
you feel overwhelmed. But I remember feeling that because of the way I was
brought up, we have to tackle our obstacles." Luna said she felt more at home
when she joined Kappa Delta Chi, a service-based Latina sorority on campus.
Edith Auslander, a former Tucson Newspapers executive tapped this week by Likins
to serve as his Hispanic liaison starting in September, said she doesn't have
all the answers - yet.
But she does feel that the UA has some programs to build on. The journalism
program started recruiting minority students 30 years ago. Hispanic alumni have
raised a $1.6 million endowment, which provides full tuition for 108 students
every year. Whether all of the resources are working together is something she
is still reviewing.
"I think the president has set the pace and we'll all be working in this area,"
Auslander said. "It's a big job. "
* Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at 807-7789 or