News Column

Getting Beyond A Bachelor's Degree

December 2002, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine

Scott Williams

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Joe Garcia is a man with a common name and uncommon educational goals. He's a semester away from earning two master's degrees from the University of New Mexico's Robert O. Anderson Schools of Management.

What makes Mr. Garcia unusual is not just the number of graduate degrees he will earn when he graduates in May 2003. He will also be among the relatively few U.S. Hispanics to earn a graduate or professional degree.

"It had always been my plan not to stop with a bachelor's," says Mr. Garcia, a 25-year-old native of Albuquerque. "Education is something that has been stressed throughout my whole life. For my family, there was no question I was going to go on in school."

Unlike many U.S. Hispanics who attend college, Mr. Garcia does not represent the first generation in his family to do so. Both of his parents attended college before him, as did his paternal grandparents.

So Mr. Garcia, who's working toward master's degrees in Latin American studies and international management, says there was never any doubt he would earn a bachelor's degree. And when he graduated from the University of New Mexico with a degree in languages in December 1999, he immediately enrolled in graduate school.

Hispanic leaders committed to improving academic achievements in their communities wish stories like Mr. Garcia's were far less uncommon. Although Hispanics are attending college in record numbers, the rate of Hispanic enrollment particularly in graduate and professional schools continues to trail increases in Hispanic population over the past two decades.

Antonio Flores, president and chief executive officer of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, says that about 4.2 percent of those who earned master's degrees in the United States in 2000 were of Hispanic descent. Hispanics also received 4.8 percent of professional degrees and 2.9 percent of doctorates conferred that year, while accounting for some 12.5 percent of the U.S. population.

"We still have a long way to go with regard to rate of degrees earned and just sheer enrollment in graduate school," says Mr. Flores, who holds a Ph.D. in higher education. "We've been stagnating and even somewhat backtracking in terms of completing degrees."

The problem begins in the K12 years, Mr. Flores says, especially at schools with high Hispanic enrollment, many of which lack the equipment, personnel, and curriculum needed to prepare students for college. That leaves some Hispanic students unqualified to attend college. Others are forced to attend community colleges rather than the four-year institutions they might prefer.

Students who are deficient in math or science, Mr. Flores adds, will have limited choices in college and won't be able to compete with other students because of those gaps in their education. That, in turn, makes it harder for them to graduate and continue on to graduate and professional schools.

"It's unfortunate that oftentimes there are not enough resources deployed to break that cycle," Mr. Flores says. "I don't think young people should be condemned to having limited choices in life. Institutions should provide remedial courses that would allow them to move on and compete in those fields."

Unfortunately, such courses are scarce, Mr. Flores points out. And that means many Hispanic students are forced into fields such education, social science, and the humanities, whether or not they want to pursue careers in those fields. The reverse is true in business, engineering, and the physical sciences, he says fields in which Hispanics have low rates of enrollment and graduation.

Money is another obstacle to graduate school for many Hispanics. On average, Hispanic families earn about 60 cents for every dollar earned by families in the overall U.S. population, despite having an average of 1.5 more people per household. Studies also have shown that Hispanics tend to be less familiar with the financial aid process and are more reluctant to borrow money to pay for college than are other groups. That reluctance mounts when they consider borrowing more money to pay for graduate school.

"They defer graduate school because they are concerned that they have all this accumulated debt and may have to borrow more," says Mr. Flores. "That creates a great deal of pressure on them. It has to be one of the main factors operating in the minds of those who decide not to go on to graduate school."

Howard Smith, dean of the Robert O. Anderson Schools of Management at the University of New Mexico, says that another deterrent to enrollment in graduate and professional schools is that many Hispanics are first-generation college students.

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