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Executive Summary
The Context
for this Study
Enormous Diversity
Among Hispanic High
School Students
Obstacles to
College Attendance
and Completion
Success Stories
Afterword by
Deborah Wadsworth
Commentary by
Advisory Group
   Opening the
    by Arturo Madrid.

   Building a
   Consensus for
    by Alfredo G.
    de los Santos Jr.

   A Challenge and
   an Opportunity
   for Policy,
    by Marlene L. Garcia

   Low Expectations
   Equal Low
    by Jaime A. Molera

About the Author
About Public Agenda
About the National
Center for
Public Policy and
Higher Education

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Page 4 of 15


The first, perhaps not very surprising, observation that emerges from our interviews is that, as far as higher education is concerned, the term "Hispanic" does not really describe a group with a unified set of characteristics or a prevailing set of attitudes. We found an enormous range of diversity among the people we interviewed. While some of the students we interviewed were themselves immigrants who spoke Spanish at home, others came from families who had been in the United States for generations. Our respondents traced their heritage to a variety of countries, including Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and the countries of Central America. Some came from well-to-do families where both parents had been to college and graduate school, others came from poverty-level or working-class families where neither parent had finished high school.

This diversity of backgrounds seems to be reflected in the choices that the young people make concerning their plans after graduating from high school. For the purposes of our discussion, we can divide the students we talked to into three broad groups: "college-prep" students (typically coming from middle-class families) who are poised for an easy transition to higher education immediately after graduation; "non-college-bound" students, often from working-class families, who display little chance of going to college in the near future; and the "college-maybes," students who share many of the same obstacles as the non-college-bound students, but who appear to have more of the academic preparation needed to go on to college directly after graduation.5

1. College-Prep Students

Many of the students we talked to resemble college-bound students from any affluent middle- or upper-class suburb in the country. Their parents and their guidance counselors have always expected them to go to college, and they and all of their friends are firmly on the college track. By May of their senior year (which is when we met them), they had typically looked over some colleges, applied to one or more, and had an acceptance letter in hand. Many were personally a bit murky about how all of this would be paid for, but they did know that college would be financed mostly by parental contribution and financial aid. Many also expected that they may have to work during the year and in the summer to help out.

David, one of the fathers we spoke with in Tucson, offers a glimpse into the attitudes and values of this kind of family. David was born in the United States, as were his parents. The oldest of his three children is a senior at one of Tucson's large public high schools. He owns a telephone maintenance company and also does consulting. In his spare time he is very active with his children's sports teams. He described his oldest son this way:

    Our son will graduate with honors on Tuesday. He's already been accepted and he's going to Arizona State in their aerospace engineering program. He's also in their Air Force ROTC program. He wants to work for NASA. I'm absolutely thrilled. On July 11th he leaves for Europe for three weeks, then he'll be home two days and then he goes away to school. He's currently taking AP courses. He's also taking a course or two at the community college to get freshman credit. All of his friends are going to college too. He has a friend going to Stanford, he's got a couple of friends going to the University of Arizona, and the others are going to other places.

For David, there has never been any question about whether the boy, Jason, was going to college. We asked David what he would have said to Jason if the young man had announced that he was not going to college in the fall. David replied: "If you like the car you drive and the place you live, you are going where we tell you."

What is most striking about this group is how much they resemble upscale families from other ethnic groups whom we have interviewed in connection with other projects. While David and his family may have a number of distinctly Hispanic cultural characteristics, when it comes to sending their children to college, their approach is very similar to what we have seen in focus groups with upper-middle-class families nationwide.

Although these college-bound students were definitely headed to college, we also saw a desire, among some of them, to ease the transition. Several of the students we talked to wanted to go to college close to home, or even to live at home for the first year. Others stressed that they wanted to start in a community college for the first two years, to stay closer to home and to save money. This is consistent with other research that shows that Hispanic students are more likely than other groups to choose two-year institutions.6

2. Non-College-Bound Students

In the focus groups, we also talked to students (and heard about others from their friends and teachers) who, at least in the near term, do not appear to be going to college after high school. Among this group, many seemed to lack the academic skills, work habits, and sense of direction and focus that going to college requires. In many ways, these students are the reverse image of the college-prep students. Most have attended high schools for which college enrollment after high school graduation is not the norm. In some cases, the young women already have children and some of the young men we spoke to have already had brushes with the criminal justice system. Typically, their parents have low educational attainment and low-paying jobs. Some of the students are from single-parent homes, and they have attended many different schools, as their parents moved from neighborhood to neighborhood. Here are a few comments from students in this category:7

I went to a lot of different elementary schools, five or six. Middle schools? Went to two of them. My family moved all of the time.
 Female, Tucson
My mom works almost every day, many hours. So she really isn't there. I'm home by myself every day. I don't live with my dad, my parents are divorced. My dad, we don't really talk to each other much. . . . I agree college is important. It's not that I'm not smart, I'm too lazy. Like almost every kid, I would rather do something other than read a book.
 Male, Chicago
College was a thought when I was a freshman in high school. I was playing football and I was like maybe I can get a scholarship for college as a football player. Then I got in fights in school with all the little preppy whites. I had time off from school. Then I'd go back to school and then go to work because we didn't have money for all of us to sit around the house and do nothing. As I went more through high school I looked at it, it ain't an option for me. I'm not wanting to go to college.
 Male, Tucson
My friend isn't going to college next year. She's going to DR [Dominican Republic]. She's going to raise her child there, she has a baby.
 Female, New York City
My decision was I went to jail. I spent a year in the house for being set up for something I knew I shouldn't have done. There I was. Then the day came that I got out. I had over 200 hours of community service. The only place that would let a parolee do community service was my grandfather's work. It's hard work throwing asphalt around but you lose a lot of weight from it. He said if I can graduate from high school I could go into his business. So that is what I will do. I didn't want to go to college, I just wanted to get through high school. The campuses are too big and too many people.
 Male, Tucson
Yet, even among this group of low-achieving, high-risk youngsters, virtually all were well aware of the expectation that successful high school graduates go on to college. Perhaps like troubled students everywhere, they had found ways of avoiding the painful reality of their situation. In some cases, they told us that they were going to college, but when questioned about the specifics, it became clear that they really had no concrete plans to do so. One said, for example, "I'll start college in late fall" (but, of course, most colleges start in August or September). One student from Tucson who was graduating from high school at age 21 explained that he would be going next fall to the University of North Carolina, although he had not applied to that institution.

Other students dealt with the college issue by saying that they were planning to go to college, but that they were going to "take some time off." Other students told us, however, that "taking a year off" really means "not going to college." As one female student from Chicago explained:

    A lot of people say they'll take a year off because you want a break from school after 18 years of it. Most people that take a year off usually get a full-time job and they never go back to thinking about college.
By the time we talked to many of these young people, in other words, college in the near future had already been excluded as a realistic option. Either social conditions, the failure of the educational system, or their own choices had created situations where they had little hope of educational attainment beyond the high school diploma. Some of these students struck us as extremely bright. One young man had dropped out of school in the eighth grade, but then passed a G.E.D. exam with no preparation whatsoever. But for most of these students, our observation was that massive intervention-both academic and social-would be required for them to launch a successful college career any time soon.

3. The College-Maybes

A third group of students fell between the affluent, college-prep students and those students for whom college (at least next fall) seemed a remote possibility. These students shared some of the characteristics of the non-college-bound students. Typically, their parents, usually immigrants, had not gone to college themselves (or even completed high school). Generally, they did not come from high schools where all of their friends and classmates were going to college as a matter of course. At the same time, these students seemed better prepared for college than the at-risk group we described above. From what we could tell, they were doing well in school, and their families hoped that they would go to college. Still, they were hardly uniform in their decisions. Some were headed for college, others were exploring other possibilities.

This college-maybe group struck us as particularly important from a policy perspective. Changes in Hispanic higher education participation rates are likely to come, at least initially, from students who resemble these college-maybes. As we will see, there are obstacles that make college attendance more difficult for this group but we also heard some inspiring success stories.

5After our study was completed, the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute released a report that made a very similar distinction. They also settled upon three groups, which they called "the endowed," "the challenged," and the "positive outliers." They saw this last group, which we call the college-maybes, as the most important focus of efforts to improve college attendance and completion rates for Hispanics. Louis G. Tornatzky, Richard Cutler, and Jongho Lee, College Knowledge: What Latino Parents Need to Know and Why They Don't Know It (Claremont, CA: Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, April 2002), p. 6.
6Fry, Latinos in Higher Education, p. 6.
7As anyone who works with high school students can attest, young people sometimes give rather short answers to questions about their future. Some of the quotations are actually the answer to two or three questions from the moderator. To increase the readability, we have often omitted the moderator's questions and, sometimes, have edited or amplified the quotations to make the meaning clear.


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