Latinos have scant access to higher education, survey finds

Medill News ServiceNovember 9, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- Faced with few resources, cultural barriers and pressing family responsibilities, Latino youths find that access to higher education comes harder for them than it does for peers of other races, a survey by the Pew Hispanic Center found.

The survey, released Wednesday, found that while 88 percent of young Latinos viewed college education as necessary to get ahead, only 48 percent intended to pursue bachelor's degrees.

Just 33 percent of Latinos remain in school after age 18, the study found, trailing a general U.S. population that has 42 percent enrollment after the same age.

Juan Sepulveda, the head of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans, said this week that many young Latinos who reached the postsecondary level attended two-year colleges.

"If we go, community college is where we start," Sepulveda said.

That's where 19-year-old Guadalupe Hernandez started: She enrolled at Montgomery College in Takoma Park, Md., to save money. Hernandez, the American-born daughter of Mexican and Nicaraguan immigrants, said she felt that she must prove herself.

"Like I can succeed," Hernandez said. "Like I'm not another stereotype."

Hernandez said family ties ran deep within Latino culture, to the point that responsibility to close relatives and even extended family could be a barrier to education. She mentioned a friend who left school each day to clean with her mother.

"It's your family first and then yourself," Hernandez said. "That's how it is."

According to the survey, family responsibilities are the main reason that Latinos choose not to continue education, with 74 percent of young respondents falling into this category. Limited English skills ran a distant second.

Results from the National Survey of Latinos drew responses from 1,240 people ages 16 to 25 and from 772 people ages 26 and older.

Diversity among the young Latino population further complicates educational achievement. The survey found that foreign-born students, who compose 35 percent of Latino youths, are much more likely to drop out of high school or abandon higher education. Only 20 percent of foreign-born Latinos pursue school after age 18, the survey found.

Most of these students are in English as a Second Language programs in public schools. Richard Fry, a Pew Hispanic Center senior research associate, said this group was becoming increasingly isolated.

"They're increasingly going to school with themselves," Fry said. "They're not really upset about the institutions educating them. ... It presents a dilemma."

Sepulveda said President Barack Obama's administration would work to foster a "college-going culture" among Latinos and improve their access to higher education. A streamlined online financial aid application is to be available by Jan. 1, Sepulveda said.

Students such as Marilyn Molina, 21, will need more, however. Molina, a high school dropout who's working toward her GED through alternative schooling, said that when she left high school in Bladensburg, Md., her absence went unnoticed.

Teachers don't talk about financial aid, Molina said. She said they didn't ask, "What do you want to be?"

(The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Rogers, a graduate student in journalism from Elkhart, Ind., covers business and education.)


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