|| BUILDING A CONSENSUS FOR EQUITY
By Alfredo G. de los Santos Jr.
Let me begin by reiterating a point about the size of the Latino population. In the 2000 census, one in every eight persons in the United States was Latino. Already in New Mexico, the majority of high school graduates are Latino, and soon enough it will be true in Texas, California, New York, and Florida. Of course, many Latino students don't graduate from high school at all. In Arizona, 50% of the students who begin 9th grade drop out before graduation. So our country is facing a massive task, and this study and the new study by the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute both point in the same direction. We need to know much more about these students, and we need to find ways to increase the percentage of them who will be ready for a college education.
Arturo Madrid discussed some of the limitations that we face in working with this population, but I would like to mention yet another one, dealing with the issue of building political support from the population at large for programs to address the needs of Latino students.
Let's look for a moment at some of the efforts to eliminate illiteracy and innumeracy. We have had some tremendous successes in this area. Texas, for example, has made remarkable strides. In Texas, the gap between white school children and all other school children on NAEP test scores has substantially narrowed.
How was this done in Texas? In part it was based on building public support. The public has come to understand that having a large population of children without literacy and numeracy skills is bad public policy for everyone. The public understands that it is in the interest of the whole society to address this issue. There is tremendous support, in other words, for equity at the K-8 level. We need to build on the success in some states and bring the same methods to other states that have been less successful.
The next challenge, which may be more difficult, is to build the same case for equity throughout K-16 (or even K-20). Here we face new and different problems, because the public perceives these as areas of competition among students. In effect, some parents may start by asking themselves, "If there is real equity throughout K-12, won't that hurt my own child's chances?" In other words, we haven't completely made the case that wider access to higher education is in everyone's interest, not just something that is of benefit to those who get that higher education.
The research done by Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education shows that the public is just beginning to think this through. The most recent national surveys show that nearly everyone believes that society needs more college-educated workers (as opposed to survey results from several years ago, which showed that the public at that time was worried about having too many over-educated people). Yet according to the more recent surveys, the public still places primary emphasis on individual responsibility for attaining a higher education, and believes that the benefits of higher education go primarily to individuals. Also, people see college dropouts as a problem for those individuals who drop out, rather than for society as a whole. Our task is to build on the emerging values to create a consensus for equity at the higher levels of education.
Alfredo G. de los Santos Jr. is research professor at the Hispanic Research Center at Arizona State University. He is former vice chancellor for student and educational development at the Maricopa Community Colleges in Arizona. He is also principal investigator for the Phoenix Urban Systemic Initiative, which is funded by a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation. He earned an associate's degree from Laredo Junior College and has a bachelor's degree, a master of library science, and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin.