|NY Times Education Life
July 15, 2010
The Latino Lag
By JOSEPH BERGER
THE odyssey of Hilda Segovia offers a vivid illustration of why Hispanic students are often less prepared to weather the adventure of college and more vulnerable to giving up once they begin.
Slender, pale and bashful, Ms. Segovia is a 25-year-old woman who came to New York from Ecuador illegally six years ago. After working several low-wage jobs like running food to the tables at a French restaurant, she decided to improve her English so she might get a job as a waitress. She enrolled in a free English as a second language class at LaGuardia Community College’s continuing education program, located in an industrial warren of western Queens. There, a teacher set her off on her elusive quest.
“He told me I could make something more of myself besides just learning English, have a degree in something,” she said.
But she soon found out how little equipped she was for college study. Not only was Ms. Segovia’s English rocky, but she had only the mistiest notions of what college was all about. “I didn’t know what a credit was,” she said. “I felt ashamed to ask other students.”
She had to learn the ropes on her own. Her parents couldn’t help. They had stopped their education back in Ecuador at the end of the primary grades, so for them college might as well have been an ungraspable mirage.
Once Ms. Segovia made the plunge, she quickly learned that as an illegal immigrant she could not qualify for government aid (though no federal law prohibits illegal immigrants from attending college). After one year in the college’s noncredit language immersion program and a second year taking two courses, she has earned a 3.78 grade-point average. She wonders whether she will be able to stay the course and graduate with an associate degree. Her husband, an electrical worker, has supported her studies, but she has already spent $6,000 and will soon exhaust their savings. Ms. Segovia is unable to work full time to help defray costs because she has a 4-year-old son.
“Even if I get a degree, I will still be illegal,” she said dejectedly. “I hope my luck changes.”
Ms. Segovia’s story is the kind that offers valuable if humbling lessons to policy makers as they wrestle with what to do about an achievement gap that is often neglected in the public debates about education. Among the major ethnic groups, Hispanics appear to have the weakest rates for going to college and actually attaining a degree once there.
Only 13 percent of Hispanic adults have received at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 31 percent of non-Hispanic whites, 18 percent of blacks and 50 percent of Asians, Census studies show. The proportion of 16- to 19-year-old Latinos who have dropped out of high school — 9 percent — is more than twice as high as that for whites, four times as high as Asians, and higher than the rate for blacks, which is 7 percent, according to an analysis of 2008 Census data by the Pew Hispanic Center. And only 28 percent of college-age Latinos are enrolled in college, compared with 45 percent of whites, 64 percent of Asians and 34 percent of blacks.
The data are partly a statistical fallacy because a majority of the Latinos counted are immigrants, many with weak English skills. When only native-born Hispanics are counted, the gaps narrow; dropout and college endurance statistics roughly match those of blacks. Still, there remains a large gap with Asians and whites.
Such gaps are sure to get more attention as Hispanics become a larger share of the population. In a decade, Latinos are expected to make up 20 percent of the college-age population. Their performance could turn out to be a critical issue for President Obama, who last year challenged the country to lead the world by 2020 in students completing college. The United States ranks seventh in the proportion of adults enrolled in college, at 34 percent, compared with top-ranked South Korea at 53 percent.
Experts say they doubt that Mr. Obama’s goal will be met unless a significantly larger proportion of Latinos graduate. They express concern that an increasingly vocal strain of anti-immigrant sentiment — demonstrated in the Arizona law passed this year that grants local police greater authority to check the legal status of people they stop — would discourage Latinos from pursuing college studies.
Why there is a lag in Hispanic educational achievement continues to frustrate educators and experts, and a whole range of causes are cited. The Pew Hispanic Center has surveyed the Latino population and, according to Mark Hugo Lopez, the associate director, the reasons are both economic and cultural.
Pew surveys show that Latino parents say they value education as much as any other group. But when Pew interviewed 16- to 25-year-olds who cut their education short during or right after high school, it found that nearly three-quarters said they did so because they had to help their family, Mr. Lopez said. Four in 10 said they didn’t need more education for the occupations they were pursuing. In addition, young Latinas are more likely to be teenage mothers whose need to care for infants makes attending college difficult.
To Deborah Santiago, vice president for policy and research at Excelencia in Education, a Washington-based advocacy group for Hispanic students, “the challenge is to link aspiration, which is high, with actualization, which is low.” She added: “If you are not working, and paying a school to take classes, those are economic costs for a family, and low-income families in every ethnic group face that economic challenge continually.”
Also, many immigrant parents were not well educated in their home countries; 34 percent of foreign-born Hispanic adults have less than a ninth-grade education, according to Census data.
“One of the biggest predictors of educational attainment is the mother’s education level,” Ms. Santiago said. “If the mother doesn’t have a good education, than the child is not going to have a good education.” That means that college ambitions will not be on an immigrant family’s front burner and, even if they are, parents may not understand the options available — like the ability of high-performing students to apply to selective out-of-town colleges or exploit scholarship programs.
Ms. Santiago, 41, the daughter of Puerto Rican migrants who settled in the Washington, D.C., area, recalled that “my parents didn’t know what it would take to get to college,” and in 1986 she chose the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., then a small liberal arts college, because a third cousin had attended.
“I figured it out on my own,” she said.
She counts herself lucky that she went to a small school — even if it only had 17 Latinos at the time — because professors gave her more attention, she says, and financial aid counselors told her about scholarships no one else had applied for.
Once in college, Latino students often find it harder than students from other ethnic groups to navigate the system. They are more likely to find themselves bogged down in remedial and E.S.L. courses — for no credit — and see the hurdles to college completion growing more difficult rather than easier. In public colleges particularly, there might not be enough guidance counselors to goad, console or advise them.
Ximena Santos, 22, an Ecuadorian immigrant, said that until she started LaGuardia’s English immersion program, she didn’t know what an essay was. In her high school, brief answers were the norm. Because she, too, is undocumented and cannot qualify for government aid, she has supported her studies by working as a waitress or in Long Island City’s jewelry factories and with help from her mother, a restaurant cook.
To remedy ignorance of college logistics, Excelencia and other advocates recommend the kind of learning communities that can be found at LaGuardia, a branch of the City University of New York, or at the University of Texas, El Paso, or El Camino College in Torrance, Calif. All are regarded under federal guidelines as Hispanic-serving colleges, meaning more than 25 percent of students are Hispanic. About 200 institutions across the country — the highest concentrations being in California, New Mexico, Texas and New York — meet the designation, which makes them eligible for special funds.
The concept of learning communities is that groups of students who stick together through much of their daily coursework can help one another when stumped, or inform one another about tactical matters.
“Because we’re a commuter school, students take classes and leave campus, and it’s hard to build relationships with other students,” said Marian Blaber, who directs LaGuardia’s language immersion program and administers a $50,000 Excelencia grant to provide and train counselors who, among other things, help students balance their array of courses and find tutors for difficult subjects like chemistry.
The grant is called Semillas, Spanish for seeds. Excelencia doles out $1 million in such grants each year around the country to help students segue into college, with funds provided by philanthropies like the Wal-Mart Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Caroline Zapata, the 21-year-old daughter of a Midtown Manhattan maintenance man from Colombia, says that her fellow classmates help her with pronunciation and can explain enigmatic concepts. “Sometimes the professor speaks very fast and I’m confused and I don’t want to interrupt the class and ask the professor, so the other students explain it to me afterward,” she said in still-halting English. “I also feel like I’m not the only one in class so I feel encouraged to study again and again. And I see people who are similar to me who are doing even worse.”
Preparation in high school is crucial, educators say. There are high schools with Hispanic majorities that strategically encourage students to focus on getting into college starting in the 10th grade. At the Bronx High School of Medical Science, a small school of 400 students in the former Taft High School building, all but one or two of its graduates go on to college.
The school has teachers like Edwin Calderon, a math instructor who himself had been an example of the problem and is now part of the solution. When he was a teenager in the early 1980s, he, like too many Latino youngsters, felt that graduating from high school was achievement enough. “My mom graduated fourth grade, so that was a big accomplishment,” he said.
Rather than toil through four years of college, he was set on joining the blue-collar workforce. Luckily, a math teacher, impressed by his gift for deciphering the labyrinthine pathways of numbers, insisted he go to college and helped him sign up for the SAT and fill out undergraduate applications.
That encounter led to his admission to the State University of New York at Stony Brook. After graduation, he became a financial analyst, then switched to teaching math and found his way to the Medical Science high school, near the Grand Concourse, not far from where he grew up. It is one of six compact high schools on Taft’s campus, and 70 percent of its students are Hispanic. It is also one of 12 Bronx high schools that receive enrichment through Lehman College to prepare 11th graders for college-level math courses. The Bronx Center for Teaching Innovations at Lehman provides tutors for students and trains teachers and furnishes them with educational technology and teaching guides — a treasure chest of, for example, mathematical mind-benders.
The other day, Mr. Calderon departed from the calculus and precalculus instruction in his 11th-grade math class and added an offbeat algebraic problem. What if a math teacher gave half the coins in his pocket, plus one, to a student and continued to divvy coins up this way to three other students until he had none left.
“How many coins did he have at the beginning?” Mr. Calderon asked.
Three students went up to the board and using different approaches — two starting from the teacher’s first gift of coins, the others working backward from the last gift — came up with the answer of 30. That delighted Mr. Calderon because the students had sliced through a problem using their own “out-of-the-box” conceptions and had not resorted to a single formula. That analytical talent will help them in college, he said.
“Kids need the realization that you approach problems different ways,” he said.
Mr. Calderon, a sturdily built and self-assured man who has boxed professionally, talked later of several students who did not believe they had the ability to handle college, or whose parents had told them to stay home and have babies, and how they had gained confidence by solving problems in his class. Yet, from his own upbringing as one of six children, he says he knows how chancy the odds can be for students raised in poor, single-parent families. One of Mr. Calderon’s siblings did become a psychiatrist, and another an assistant principal, but three others, he says, had their prospects cut short by drugs and crime.
At Bronx Medical Science, the odds of making it all the way to a college diploma are also not that good. Students have been admitted to, and gotten through, selective colleges like Columbia and Brandeis. But administrators say they worry about those who attend CUNY. Of the 24 Medical Science students who started CUNY’s community or senior colleges in fall 2007, fewer than half were enrolled by the spring of 2009. William Quintana, the school’s exuberant principal, does not blame the colleges alone.
Too many families, he said, take trips to their home countries when their jobs permit, pulling their children out of school during an important time for learning or tests. Older children in single-parent homes must drop off younger siblings at other schools, even if it means missing class.
“Families need to change their perspectives about education,” he said. “They must make education a priority.”
Mr. Quintana worked the night shift as an Upper East Side doorman after he emigrated from Colombia in the 1980s while taking courses in teaching. He encourages his students to take college-credit courses through CUNY’s free College Now program, at Lehman, Hostos Community College and Bronx Community College. Half his students do. When parents feel their children are being burdened, he tells them epigrammatically: “All of those dropping this course will end up working for those that remain.”
“Hard work will always result in a higher position,” he said.
But he and other educators concede that taking such courses is not a simple matter. Kasmira Torres, a junior at Lehman who tutors Medical Science students, told of working with some who juggle two jobs to support their parents, and others who dash home after school to baby-sit younger siblings.
Anne Walsh, head of the Bronx Center for Teaching Innovations, said she still doesn’t know whether the enrichment program, which started last September, will succeed. Some teachers, she said, “have embraced the program more than others.” The laggers, she said, seem to find it hard to squeeze enrichment activities into lessons because the high school curriculum is so packed and needs to be completed in time for the Regents exams.
The LaGuardia learning communities for accelerated students — part of a $6.5 million, three-year program that offers free tuition, stipends for books and free subway and bus passes — has seen more encouraging results. More than a third of the first cohort of 1,132 students was Hispanic. Donna Linderman, director of the program, which is CUNY wide, said that Hispanic students who started in fall 2007 had more than twice the two-year and three-year graduation rates — 27 percent and 57 percent respectively — of a comparison group.
The road to a degree for many must begin with language immersion. Carol Diaz, a cheerful 21-year-old from the Dominican Republic, said that a counselor in the program had helped her select college-credit courses that would not set her up for failure and coached her with tips for success — for example, that sitting in the front of her class would force her to pay better attention. Such advice was important for Ms. Diaz, the daughter of estranged parents who has been living on her own practically since she came here at age 18, paying her own rent and food bills. She continues to work 12 hours every weekend as a dental assistant.
“My parents didn’t go to college and they don’t believe in that,” she said with a flash of anger. “They don’t care about my education.”
She wants to be an occupational therapist and so far has successfully completed three courses — in biology, community health and English — and has gotten good grades by spending long hours reviewing the content in a language she still is not completely comfortable with.
“I was in school every day at 10 a.m. until they kicked me out of the building,” she said. “People don’t know how high they can reach. They feel they can make enough money cleaning house.”
She is already talking about staying on track all the way to a doctorate so she can open her own occupational therapy clinic. A goal like that may just propel her all the way through to a college degree.
Joseph Berger, a metropolitan reporter for The Times, taught a course last spring on immigrant neighborhoods at Macaulay Honors College of City University of New York.