Monday, December 29, 2008

Latino groups weather increasing college obstacles

With budget cuts straining California's public colleges and universities, some are worried about the effects on Latinos, who are particularly difficult to recruit to higher education in the best of times.

The California State University system, where more than one-quarter of students are Latino, plans to cut enrollment by 10,000 next year. Although the university still plans to guarantee entry to the vast majority of qualified California residents, the plan could discourage students from applying.

Several organizations have worked for years to increase college-attendance rates among the state's 14.3 million Latinos, and some are concerned the new challenges could roll back gains. More than 43 percent of California's 18- to 24-year-old population is Latino, compared with 27 percent of the state's public college and university enrollment.

Although a recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California showed Latinos are far more likely than other ethnicities to value higher education, some parents are recent immigrants who did not attend college and do not understand the challenges their children face.

Budget problems serve to complicate that obstacle, said Deborah Santiago, a co-founder and vice president of Excelencia in Education, which researches Latino education issues. The resulting obstacles will contradict the state's longtime mission to provide widespread college access, Santiago said.

"Even if we got these Advertisementfirst-generation students better educated (about college), I think California would be challenged to have the capacity to serve them," she said. "Talk about a misalignment of messages."

But support groups are continuing to convince Latinos that a college education is possible. At the Parent Institute for Quality Education, students whose parents complete courses about the college-going process are given priority in Cal State admissions.

And Excelencia in Education promotes programs that address the needs of the Latino community, such as in-depth counseling and bilingual nursing courses.

"The messaging is still optimistic, but we are realistic about the possibility that things might not be working out," said Rosa Armendariz, Los Medanos College's activity director for the Pittsburg school's federal Hispanic-Serving Institution grant.

Most of the groups say the added challenges mean students need to prepare early for college by taking the required classes through high school.

About 30 percent of the state's nearly 2.8 million community college students are Latino. Although that's a higher percentage than either the Cal State or University of California systems can boast, students and educators point out that people of all races have trouble making the leap from two-year to four-year colleges.

Researchers have estimated that as little as 18 percent of Latino community college students seeking a four-year degree succeed in transferring from the two-year schools. Many Latino students give up after four or five years in community college, said Miguel Marez, a 27-year-old master's degree student at Cal State East Bay.

Latino students whose parents have no college experience need help filling out financial-aid forms and figuring out college paths, he said. Marez recalled many of his childhood friends giving up on college aspirations early.

"A lot of my friends would become landscapers or housekeepers," said Marez, a social-work student. "I can think of a lot of male Latinos going into the military, but I can't think of many who went into college."

The state budget problems aren't making that pathway any easier. Even at the particularly accessible community colleges, required courses are being cut, leaving fewer opportunities for working students to fit school into their schedules.

And UC leaders have left open the possibility that they will limit enrollment next year, perhaps shutting off another possibility for some students.

Even though many Spanish-speaking immigrants don't understand the technical aspects of applying to college, they do understand the consequences if their children don't attend college, said Michele Siqueiros, executive director of the Campaign for College Opportunity.

"Latinos understand that in this country, if you're going to get ahead, you need to have an education," she said. "If we don't do anything about it, we're not going to meet the state's workplace needs."

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