The college-application process is hard enough. Between studying for admissions tests, writing essays, and filling out financial-aid forms, many students find it overwhelming.
Now consider how much harder it might be if English is not your first language, no one in your family has gone to college, and you don't have enough money to visit campuses, let alone pay tuition.
That's the situation for many Latino students. And experts and advocates say those barriers, in large part, explain why they trail other Americans in completing higher education.
Just 37 percent of adult Hispanics have completed some college coursework or an associate degree. This lags behind the postsecondary attainment of Asians, whites, and blacks, each of which have rates above 50 percent. That's not to say there hasn't been progress. Over the past decade, Latino adults' educational attainment has increased significantly, and the number of Hispanics with a bachelor's degree has risen 80 percent from 2.1 million to 3.8 million, according to research by Excelencia in Education, a Washington-based national nonprofit that advocates for Latino success in higher education.
"I do see progress and find great hope," says Deborah Santiago, a co-founder and the vice president of policy and research for the organization. "But we still have large gaps."
As Latino students transition from high school to a career, they often lack the academic preparation, money, and college know-how to make it in college. Many are first-generation college students whose families aren't familiar with the U.S. higher education system and financial aid. There can be language barriers and a cultural reluctance to move away from family and borrow for school. And, like other historically disadvantaged minority groups in the United States, many Hispanics attend K-12 schools without adequate counseling or course rigor.
To meet President Barack Obama's national college-completion goal by 2020, Latinos need to earn 5.5 million certificates and degrees from 2010 to 2020. Upping educational progress for this population is particularly important because nearly 60 percent of the workforce in the next 15 years is expected to come from Latino families, says Jose Rico, the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. He says the federal government needs to work with the states, as well as colleges and high schools, to improve access and completion. "It's a no-brainer from our end to invest in our communities," he says. "This is preparing to grow our economy and workforce."
Not only is the Hispanic population growing faster than most other racial and ethnic groups, it is also much younger, suggesting the opportunity is prime for increasing the college-going rate. The average age of Latinos is 27, compared with about 40 for most other population groups. To help Latinos overcome the barriers that stand between them and a college degree, high schools, colleges, governments, and nonprofits are developing innovative programs to provide guidance about course selection, trips to college campuses, and mentoring through the college-application process and scholarship search.
Setting the Tone
One such example is the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School at the northernmost tip of Manhattan in New York City. Spanish is spoken widely at this public school, where 98 percent of students are Latino--most are from the Dominican Republic or of Dominican descent--and all qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. Principal Brett Kimmel opened the school in 2006 with 150 students and now has 600 students in grades 6-12, with the founding students on the cusp of graduation.
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