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Latinos Remain Underrepresented In Higher Education. Men Especially, A New Report Finds

Students in graduation robes stand with their back to the camera. One wears a mortarboard that reads: Dad, this is for you.
A vignette from last year's UCLA graduation ceremony.
(Robyn Beck
AFP via Getty Images)
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Latinos make up the bulk of California high school students. But how many of them go on to college? And how do they fare once they launch their undergraduate careers?

Latinos Remain Underrepresented In Higher Education. Men Especially, A New Report Finds

The Campaign for College Opportunity, a nonprofit working to increase the number of students at two- and four-year institutions, released a report on Tuesday that delves into these questions. It found that while there have been important gains — including increased Latino enrollment in the University of California (UC) and the California State University (CSU) systems — there are still significant gaps that need to be addressed.

To mark the report’s release, lawmakers, educators, researchers and college students held a panel. Vikash Reddy, one of its primary authors, noted there that more than half of Latino students at community colleges are earning associate degrees for transfer. This is good news, said Reddy, because it guarantees students junior standing when they enroll at a university and “helps them save time and money.” For the first time in history, he added, the CSU class of 2019-2020 reflects the diversity of California’s high school graduating class. Plus, preliminary admissions data from the UC for fall 2021 shows an 8% increase in Latino admissions from fall 2020.

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Despite these important gains, said Reddy, there’s more to be done to ensure that these students succeed. According to the U.S. Census, only 14% of California’s Latino 25-to-64-year-old residents hold bachelor’s degrees, the lowest rate of degree attainment among the state’s racial/ethnic groups.

And though the number of Latino students applying to the UC has risen over the past decade, they continue to be significantly underrepresented in enrollment. The report also underscores that the vast majority of California’s Latino freshmen begin their higher education journey in one of the state’s 116 community colleges.

However, only 2% transfer within two years.

Reducing Barriers, Improving Faculty Representation

The report zooms into the figures by examining citizenship status and gender. It finds that while attendance is high among undocumented Californians in K-12, only 45% of undocumented people ages 18 to 24 are enrolled in college.

There is also a disparity in enrollment between Latinas and Latinos, something that predates the impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Gerardo Chavez, an immigrant from El Salvador who serves as president of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges, addressed this at the panel. Gender stereotypes, he said, might pressure young men to feel the need to abandon their studies in order to financially support their families.

In light of these challenges, the report includes recommendations to reduce barriers for the Latino students in California, ranging from interventions at the campus level to action in the federal government.

Among the report’s many recommendations: increasing the number of Latino faculty on college campuses.

“Diversifying the student population, though important and necessary, is only one step in supporting student inclusion and belonging,” says the report. All three public systems of higher education — including community colleges, CSU and UC campuses — have “too few Latinx faculty.” The UC system, for instance, has 90 Latino students for every Latino professor. This compares to a nine-to-one ratio for white students and white professors.

“This means that Latinx students have fewer role models, advocates and mentors who have a similar lived experience, believe in the students’ capacity to succeed and understand the challenges students may be facing,” the report adds. Its authors urge college presidents, campus leaders and governing bodies to commit to hiring, retaining and promoting Latino faculty.

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Aid For Financial Aid

The report also calls for the expansion of federal Pell Grants. This funding, which is awarded to students with exceptional need, is currently unavailable for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients. (DACA recipients can apply for some financial aid through the California Dream Act.) These students have been protected from deportation since 2012. However, after a federal district judge in Texas ruled against the program, current and potential DACA holders are in a state of limbo, unsure about what the future may hold. To address this, the report’s authors call on the Biden administration to “create permanent solutions” to ensure that undocumented students can access the resources they need to graduate.

At the panel, Mike Muñoz, interim president at Long Beach City College, went into specifics about how his campus provides targeted student support.

Shortly after joining the institution in 2018, he gathered data and found that two feeder high schools had low enrollment at the community college. Notably, those schools had a high percentage of Latino and low-income students. Muñoz reached out to the schools’ principals and crafted a pilot program, obligating every high school senior to apply to the college. Muñoz, a stickler for quantifiable results, said there’s been a 42% increase in enrollment from these focus schools.

Financial aid, he added, isn’t always recognized as an equity issue. But when he and his staff speak with students who’ve dropped out, financial stress is one of the most cited barriers. So when Long Beach City College found that Black and Latino males were less likely to complete the verification process for financial aid, the school’s leaders once again went on the offensive, targeting outreach to ensure that they secured funding.

“You use the data to drive the interventions and the strategies in a way that’s not color blind or gender blind,” said Muñoz. “It’s really about directing the resources in a way that’s designed to eradicate these gaps.”

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