As graduate schools struggle to attract Hispanic students, a new challenge looms: the relevance of focusing on domestic diversity in an increasingly global economy.
This economy requires skills and perspectives that domestic diversity doesn't automatically imply – or supply. While the big picture in the United States has been to offset the social and political wrongs of the past, the new picture concentrates on a cultural literacy that eases the entry of U.S. businesses worldwide.
Ironically, in filling this void, companies are increasingly hiring foreign nationals – some educated in the United States, some overseas – who are considered Hispanic but often lack the cultural experiences of the struggle for diversity shared by U.S. Hispanics.
And while Hispanic graduate students stand favorably to fill this new need, getting them into the education pipeline and keeping them there remains difficult, since the dismantling of affirmative-action admissions and financial aid programs at colleges.
In addition, although programs exist to give students a global education, they are slow to advance; and colleges just now are considering corporate relationships not only for advice on what to teach, but also to line up employers for new grads.
"As baby boomers retire, the talent pool of minorities will shrink," says Gilbert Casellas, former chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), who practices law in Washington, D.C. "The marketplace is one aspect of attracting minority talent, and the other is being a desirable place to work. If you're viewed as an employer of choice, one that's more accepting of individuality, you will have a greater ability to draw from the minority talent pool.
"The background issue, though, is the idea of the pipeline. Fundamentally, that pipeline is leaking. Ultimately, we have to go back to grades K-8 to increase the numbers of minorities making it all the way through college and into the workforce."
The benefit of encouraging Hispanic students hasn't been lost on U.S. corporations or professional associations that reach out to children as young as grade-school age, says Samuel Betances of Souder, Betances & Associates Inc. His Chicago-based firm serves as a diversity trainer and consultant to clients including AT&T, Intel, Pfizer, Sara Lee, Grupo Telemundo, and Wal-Mart.
"Everybody knows the Hispanic market is growing, getting wealthier, and getting stronger economically and politically," Mr. Betances says. "People who deal in the global landscape seem to appreciate diversity as leverage in their businesses. But Latin American markets require certain cultural competencies from U.S. corporations that want to compete in them."
These competencies can be as simple – and as complex – as understanding employees' behavior. "When we get angry, from the Anglo side it's viewed as irrational, but from the Latino side it's viewed as passionate about whatever's being discussed," Mr. Betances says.
U.S. companies are beginning to look abroad for executives who meet their global needs while fulfilling their diversity goals, says Patrick Prout, president and CEO of The Prout Group Inc., an executive-recruiting firm with offices in Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and New York. Minorities and women have comprised 70 percent of the company's placements in the past five years.
"We're experiencing companies becoming broader with their definition of diversity," Mr. Prout says. "They're looking for someone who could bring international experience to the table while still counting that person as a Latino.
"I think there will continue to be a need for domestic diversity in areas where there's not a need for combined international and cultural experience."
For now, graduate schools are hard pressed to supply that need. Overall, Hispanic graduate enrollment in business, engineering, law, and medicine lingers in the low single digits while undergraduate representation has declined at some schools since the demise of affirmative-action admissions. Yet campus diversity has long been considered part of educating students about their world, exposing them to all segments of society in preparation for a rainbow of co-workers, customers, and competitors.
Among the most recent developments:
•Following a statewide referendum banning affirmative-action admissions, the University of Michigan announced that it will stress admissions that consider geographic origin, low income, being the first in the family to attend college, and graduating from low-funded high schools. It also released preliminary enrollment figures for 2007-2008 freshmen, the year under the voter-mandated ban; minorities make up 10.8 percent of the class, compared with 12 percent to 15 percent in previous years.
•Texas A&M University announced a partnership with nine community colleges to guarantee transfers for students meeting certain criteria. Hispanic enrollment at community colleges increased 40 percent from 2000 to 2005, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. As well, the school has opened recruiting centers in San Antonio, south Texas, and other cities, and now offers scholarships for first-in-the-family students, although ethnicity is not a criterion.
•The University of California, Riverside emerged as the most diverse in the UC system, one of the nation's largest state-university systems. Undergraduate Hispanic enrollment exceeded 25 percent last fall, compared with less than 15 percent systemwide. School officials credit the high numbers to programs such as community outreach, summer seminars for high schoolers, and remedial math and English courses for freshmen.
•And, in June, the House of Representatives unveiled a Diversity and Innovation Caucus specifically targeting remedies to address a lack of representation of minorities and women in science, technology, engineering, and math fields. The caucus, founded by Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas, is expected to develop policy that creates early outreach and awareness of careers in these fields, high-quality math and science instruction, and financial aid and support to colleges enrolling and graduating students from underrepresented population groups.
The intent behind the congressional caucus mirrors the goals of the Council of Graduate Schools, whose membership includes more than 480 U.S. and Canadian universities.
In April at the Library of Congress, the council released a report, "Graduate Education: The Backbone of American Competitiveness and Innovation," calling for renewed commitment to U.S. graduate education for all students, not only Hispanics. Other nations' education systems are quickly catching up to the United States in their emphasis on research and the number of graduate degrees they award, the report warned. The ultimate effect: If higher education doesn't change, the nation could fall behind on the world economic scene.
Besides increased funding for education programs and financial aid, the council recommended:
•Forming more collaborations such as advisory boards among government, business, and colleges to keep up with market changes and to encourage entrepreneurship;
•Reforming the visa process for international students, who can contribute to the nation's research through graduate study;
•Identifying best practices for reducing attrition among underrepresented grad students in science, technology, engineering, and math; and
•Shortening the time needed to complete a graduate degree.
"We believe graduate degrees are the best form of technology transfer, and we believe it's essential to solicit employer input in what we do," says Debra Stewart, the council's president. "It's important to sort out what kind of involvement is helpful. Clearly, the faculty can design the curriculum. On the other hand, employers can be helpful in telling us what kind of breadth they need in new employees."
Minority enrollment is growing most rapidly in graduate schools, she adds, but many of those students drop out. "If we want people coming to graduate schools, we need to find ways not only of getting them in but also of leaving with degrees," Ms. Stewart says.
Barriers to completion include the quality of mentoring, family and life circumstances, characteristics of the study fields, including work-life balance, and intellectual engagement with the field. A new type of master's degree – a professional science master's – may help to move students through graduate school faster and better. Students in these programs study not only their field, but also business project management, patent law and working in culturally diverse teams, among other disciplines.
"The students who go into these PSM programs know what they want," says Carol Lynch, director of the council's professional science master's initiative. "Though they know they like the field, they don't want to do pure research or go into academia, and they save time by not having to also get a master's of business administration."
The first professional science master's program was established in 1997 at Harvey Mudd College, one of the Claremont colleges in California. PSM programs have grown slowly to 100 offered at 50 universities, with all programs combining business and science, and nearly all of them requiring an internship. The California State University system most recently received $891,000 from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to start 16 PSM programs in the next three years at 12 of its 23 campuses.
Although the programs attract a higher percentage of domestic students than traditional master's programs, overall they're not doing as well as desired at graduating minority students. Out of a total of 1,315 students in PSM programs funded by the Sloan Foundation in December 2005, only 109 were Hispanic, African American, or Native American.
"One thing we know about Hispanic master's students is they don't like debt and are more likely to see college debt as [too] large, compared with the view of other students," Ms. Lynch says. The graduate-schools council is considering developing targeted financial aid for minorities to get past this hump. The result could be a larger talent pool – and another challenge for business.
"At one end is businesses' compliance with equal-opportunity law," says Mr. Casellas, the former head of the EEOC. "At the other end, we have to think about how we leverage the diversity of the people we already have to make other people want to work for us, and how we use diversity to break into new markets."
Mr. Prout says the best preparation for U.S.-born Hispanics is to "join global companies and get that international experience."
Be prepared, as well, for a lifetime of change.
"The real challenge for us will come as American corporations begin to look at the vast economic opportunities in China," Mr. Betances says. "It will require vision on the part of non-Hispanics not to pigeonhole us as only able to work with Latino markets."
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