Education secretary ponders how to keep Hispanics in college

Medill News ServiceApril 19, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Monday that he wanted his department to help cut dropout rates and boost college enrollment for Hispanic Americans.

The push for scholastic equality comes as President Barack Obama tries to improve the nation's educational system so that by 2020 the U.S. leads the world with its percentage of college graduates, as Duncan reiterated at a gathering of Hispanic college administrators. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that a quarter of the country's children younger than 5 are Hispanic, making Obama's goal almost impossible without their participation.

Hispanic undergraduates face numerous problems, however. They're more likely to be financially disadvantaged, they have less access to school information and they often come from families that got along without college, said attendees at this week's Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities conference.

Duncan's strategy for addressing those problems relies on revamping financial aid and high school curricula, along with a touch of social engineering.

"The absolute challenge we have is one of low expectations," Duncan said. "We have more resources than the department has ever had. We're going to try to put our money where our mouth is."

Duncan's office has more dollars and more influence than any other education chief's has in U.S. history. However, the question remains how to translate that muscle into prescriptions for the nation's educational ills.

Hispanics have started to close the gap in freshman-year college enrollment, but they've stalled in graduation rates, according to a study released last month by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy organization in Washington. On average, 51 percent of Latino undergraduates earn degrees in six years or fewer, compared with 59 percent of non-Hispanic white students, the study found.

To change that, the Education Department and its state counterparts need to link funds for institutions that serve Hispanics to graduation totals rather than to enrollment numbers, said Andrew P. Kelly, a co-author of the report.

"Let's reward the top performers," Kelly said. "Do you check to make sure the projects you're funding are proving effective, or do we funnel money into (college accessibility), which is only a piece of the puzzle?"

Duncan said he agreed, at least in principle. "Access is critical," he said, "but at the end of the day, it's about completion."

When he was asked whether he'd support such a funding overhaul, however, he responded: "Let me get back to you on that."

Some educators said that schools with large Hispanic populations needed more Latino teachers who could serve as de facto mentors for students and help stem dropout rates. Duncan supports the idea.

"We have to be creative in challenging a culture in the community that college isn't the right way to go," he said. "We understand those students' needs, but we understand the long-term price in making those decisions."

Others said that the solution lay in large-scale immigration revisions, a controversial issue that's usually absent from legislative calendars in election years. Proponents have tried since 2007 to pass a measure that would allow some undocumented students to obtain permanent residency. The latest incarnation has sat in the Senate Judiciary Committee since March of last year.

"They definitely are for it, but the question is if they're going to put all of their weight behind it," said Monte Perez, the president of Riverside Community College District in Moreno Valley, Calif. "We need to move on it now. We're losing talent now."

(The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Yadron, a graduate student in journalism from Chicago, covers education.)

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