|| A CHALLENGE AND AN OPPORTUNITY FOR POLICY
By Marlene L. Garcia
Even addressing the suggestions raised by the report itself, it is useful to re-emphasize the problem that led to the research in the first place. Although Hispanic parents are significantly more likely to emphasize the value of a college education for their children, those children are less likely to pursue and succeed in getting a college education. The report focuses our attention on the need to close that gap between hopes and reality.
Turning to the report itself, one of the most striking findings is the reaffirmation of the diversity of the Hispanic population. It is a commonplace among policymakers that the Hispanic community is highly diverse, but often when people say that, they are referring to the differences among groups such as Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Cubans, Dominicans, or Colombians. While these differences are very real, the report also points to equally significant differences in class, and highlights how these differences can affect the decision-making process to attend college. What the report suggests is that we may need to explore very different policy approaches to deal with different groups of students, based on their socioeconomic status. Even the preliminary results here suggest some important policy implications.
1. Need for more research. The more we study the policymaking process, the more we see the importance of policy-oriented research. Legislators and other policymakers are, by nature, activists; they want to solve problems. But without research, legislators can spend too much of their time reacting to very specific issues and dealing with the needs of individual constituents. Research provides a thermometer indicating other, equally important issues, where there are specific needs or where there is a critical mass of opinion that may support creative policy solutions.
The research provides both a challenge and an opportunity to policymakers. It identifies an important target population, but also suggests that although these students have high potential, significant changes may be required to actualize that potential.
2. Focusing on the "college-maybes." The preliminary findings in this report suggest that to increase access for Hispanic students, policymakers need to target efforts on the "college-maybe" students. While the needs of the college-prep students are very important, we can see that when it comes to attendance at undergraduate institutions, they do not necessarily need a customized approach. In effect, the research suggests that they need roughly what we are providing to other middle-class students. By contrast, the findings imply that we need much more research and creativity in addressing the needs of the "college-maybe" group and the "non-college-bound" students. In what follows, I'll concentrate mostly on the "college-maybes," but clearly just as much attention is required for the other group as well. (Although it is outside the scope of this report, there are some indications that Hispanic students who are very successful in making the transition from high school to college may have problems making the transition to graduate school. In effect, many of the best Hispanic college students lag behind other groups in making decisions about graduate studies.)
3. Sustained support. The research suggests that middle-class students receive sustained support for going on to higher education. These students experience an expectation from parents and teachers that they will go on to college, and at every step of the way they receive guidance and information. As the report indicates, the process of preparing a young person for college is a remarkably complex task, with midcourse corrections all along the way. The college-maybes clearly don't have these natural support systems in place. Sporadic information sessions may reach a few students, but they will not do the whole job. We need to find ways to emulate some of the sustained support received by middle-class students.
4. Breadth and depth of support. In addition to the need for support that is sustained over time, the report also suggests a need for major changes to the academic infrastructure. A perfectly logical response to this report, for example, is to assume that what is needed is an upgraded system of guidance counselors. This is part of the picture, but if these preliminary findings are correct, it is probably a mistake to think that counselors alone can do the job. These students need support from parents, teachers, and peers, as well as from counselors. Although teachers are already concerned that they are "maxed-out" and cannot take on any additional responsibilities, we need to train teachers to be better able to identify and support students who have college potential, and parents also need much more education. We also need to find ways to help parents be more supportive.
Marlene L. Garcia is a principal consultant to the Education Committee of the California Senate. Previously, she has worked for the Senate Office of Research, has represented the California State University system, and has served as a higher education consultant to then-Speaker Willie L. Brown, Jr. Her private-sector experience includes working five years for the cable television industry. Garcia has a bachelor's degree from the University of California at Los Angeles and a master's degree in public policy analysis from the Claremont Graduate School.