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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 5 of 15


Obstacle One: Children in Charge

In talking to the college-maybes, one of the most surprising things about these high school seniors was the degree to which they, in contrast to the college-prep students, seemed to be required to do all of the decision making about their educational future themselves, with very little adult support. Interestingly, many of them reported that they received little attention or advice from their high school guidance counselors. A few comments:

Moderator: Did you meet with a counselor and talk about taking the classes you are taking?
We just got to pick whatever classes we wanted, which was pretty cool.
 Male, Tucson
I just took a lot of electives. Then I figured I needed to take catch-up classes for college. My counselors never told me that I needed to retake English II the second semester and I needed a Spanish class. They never told me so I had to figure it out on my own with the college recruiter.
 Male, Santa Clara

Many of the students said that they had talked to their parents, but it also seemed clear that the parents themselves often didn't have very detailed information about higher education, or even about the specifics of what happens in high school. One mother in Tucson described her own situation:

    I'm not too involved, so I don't know how she picks her courses. She comes home with a schedule. All I know is that she does well. I am not sure what math class she is taking. She wants to go to college but I think she wants to settle down and stop moving. I think if we would do that and she senses some stability in her life, then she will want to go.
When the students told us about their plans, we sometimes asked them what they had based the information on. Often the source of information was what they heard from other students, older siblings or cousins, or a family friend. One student described how she knew what courses to take to prepare her for entrance into a nursing program:

I have friends whose wives are nurses and they said you need this, this, and this. You get more from your friends than from school.
 Female, Santa Clara

Many students reported that they had based their information on what they had heard from another young person. For these students, the final decision was one that, in their words, they had worked out for themselves, based on wherever they could gather the information.

Obstacle Two: Conflicting Signals from Teachers

Several of the college-maybe students whom we interviewed painted a picture of schools where teachers had low expectations of them and little interest in whether they went on to higher education. In some ways, this perception was confirmed by the high school teachers whom we interviewed.

We interviewed a group of high school teachers in San Antonio, Texas. All of the teachers taught in high schools with a large proportion of Hispanic students, and several of the teachers were themselves Hispanic. In many ways, what we heard from the teachers was rather discouraging. These teachers were clearly overwhelmed by some of the problems that they were facing in their own daily experience. Much of their conversation involved sharing "horror stories" about their students and their families. A few examples:

What bothers me is the mothers back away from problem boys, throw their hands in the air and say, "I don't know what to do with him," as if they have no power. The girls don't seem to think a thing in the world of getting pregnant when they're 13 or 14 years old. The kids who bring their babies to school to show them off don't get it that this might not be the best choice they could make for their life. Mostly those are Hispanic kids and of them a lot are the Mexican kids.
 Teacher, San Antonio

The parents provoke this. They want their daughters to get pregnant. We had a girl not too long ago who was all upset because she had a terrible fight with her mom because her mom wanted her to get pregnant and she didn't want to. They encourage this: "Don't worry about the baby, I'll take care of it for you."
 Teacher, San Antonio

When I ask, "What are you going to do when you finish school?" they say, "We'll just get on welfare." So sometimes I'm thinking that's an out for them. I try to encourage my students to focus on something, whether a job after high school, going into the military.
 Teacher, San Antonio

There's a real shortsightedness. It's how much money they make in a week. They don't think in terms of a career where they would make this much a year. They think of a job where they make this much by the hour.
 Teacher, San Antonio

Some Hispanic parents have dropped out of school so they don't have the education and they don't feel comfortable coming to the school. We use language they don't understand; we use acronyms they have no idea what we're talking about. So they're lost. Plus, if they had a bad experience at school and felt they didn't have the language, or they dropped out, then they're afraid to come to school and they don't push school. They say, "If you don't want to go to school today because you don't like that teacher, that's fine."
 Teacher, San Antonio

While it is impossible to generalize from one group of teachers in one city, what we heard was rather consistent with what we heard from some of the students. The teachers appeared to be so preoccupied and discouraged that they had little energy left for those students who really had a chance at further education. Rather than being concerned about how to help students make better choices about higher education, the teachers we talked to said, almost universally, that the real problem was that their Hispanic students did not have enough opportunities to pursue post-high school vocational training. Together, the teachers and the students paint a picture in which adults often don't have the time or interest-perhaps because they have too many other problems-to focus on students who could be supported to make better choices about higher education.

Obstacle Three: Misinformation

Anyone who has worked with high school seniors knows that they can be surprising both in what they know and what they don't know. While today's teenagers are often remarkably sophisticated about some subjects, they can be poorly informed about other areas. Like teenagers from every age, they sometimes speak with equal confidence about things they understand and subjects they don't know so well.

In this respect, the Hispanic college-maybe students we talked to seemed fairly typical of high school seniors everywhere in that they were, in many cases, poorly informed about higher education. A conversation with a young woman in Chicago offers a sample of what we heard over and over again. She was hoping to attend one of the Illinois state universities. She had not applied yet, but she assured us that she did not need to apply until the end of the summer. When asked how she knew, she said:

    My high school took some of us up there last February, and I was worried about whether or not I could apply still, and I discussed it with the tour guide. It was a random question and he explained it. Because it is a state college they give you time to decide, so you can apply in the fall or at the end of summer.

Afterwards, we called the university's admissions office, and learned that the actual deadline for fall applications is July 1. From the young woman's perspective, she had gotten advice from someone who was familiar with the school (a student tour guide) and she assumed that the information was correct. Apparently, her parents had also accepted this information-assuming that they had been told of it. More affluent, more educationally savvy parents (or teachers or guidance counselors) might well have questioned whether a student tour guide's word should be accepted as a definitive source of information.

Another young woman from San Antonio confidently told us that, after taking a year off after high school, she would be attending "Boston Law," which she described as a college in Boston for people who want to be lawyers. She was surprised that the moderator had never heard of it, and she seemed entirely unaware that the typical path to a law career is to enter law school after completing four years of undergraduate study. Presumably, what she had in mind was Boston University Law School.

The college-maybe students were also poorly informed about financial aid. California, for example, has recently expanded the Cal Grant program, which is intended to target resources and efforts to prospective college students. The federal financial aid application (FAFSA), which must be completed as part of the application process for the Cal Grant, also determines eligibility for virtually all other state and federal aid. We talked to several students in California who said they were definitely planning on a college career and who appeared to be good candidates for a Cal Grant. Yet several had never heard of the program. (After the focus group, one of our advisory board members who had observed the group from behind a one-way mirror told these students how to get the application, and wrote down the Web site for them).8

Obstacle Four: Other Seemingly Attractive Alternatives

Another factor that draws young people away from college is the attraction of paid work right after high school. Many of the students whom we interviewed already had jobs, and teachers in the focus groups emphasized that many of their students work for 20 or even 40 hours per week. As the teachers described it, high school graduation often represents an opportunity to work more hours and make more money at the same place where the student is already employed.

One youngster we talked to in Tucson explained it this way. His family had started a landscaping business, and during high school he was working in the landscaping company as well. His intention, upon completing high school, was to move directly into the family business.

    Landscaping is a full-time job, seven days a week, anywhere from 8 to 16 hours a day. There is just no time. Once I take it over, there is no time for me to go to college.

When we tell one of these students to go to college we are, in effect, saying: "Don't take the full-time job that is available right now. Instead, stay out of the workplace for four more years, while you spend your own money or take out loans. After the four years are over, you will get a job in a field you aren't even thinking about right now, and make much more money than you would have if you had started working."

The upper-middle-class Hispanic parents we spoke to completely bought into this way of thinking, and indicated that they would be extremely distressed if their sons or daughters proposed taking a job rather than going to college. While this argument seems straightforward and plausible to a middle-class parent, it is not difficult to see that it might not seem so appealing to a youngster who did not personally know many people who had taken this route. The argument to go to college depends on a willingness to delay short-term earnings for the possibility of greater long-term earning potential. This is sometimes a hard enough concept for young people from middle-class families to grasp, but can really be a leap of faith for the first person in the family to graduate from high school.

Obstacle Five: College Is for Specialized Training

One of the most striking findings from Great Expectations, our national survey of parents and the general public about their attitudes about higher education, is the degree to which a college education has replaced the high school diploma as the basic admission ticket into the workforce. Many of the parents interviewed for that study might prefer to see their child aiming for a specific career goal from day one of college, but they also recognized that a young person needs to go to college even if he or she does not have a specific career goal. Parents and friends still say, "Liberal arts major; what are you going to do with that?" Yet, they have come to accept that college is a place where students find careers, in addition to being trained for a career they have already selected.

Many of the college-maybe Hispanic students we interviewed held a different vision of high school and college. Many regarded a high school diploma in the same way more upscale families regard a college degree. For them, the high school diploma was the proof of a general education. They viewed college education in much the same light that more affluent families might regard professional or graduate school, as a path specifically designed to prepare a student for a particular career. But the idea of going to college without a specific career goal in mind made little sense to some of our college-maybe high school students. Their statements tell the story:

I know people who are like, "You go to college for two years and take refresher courses and classes that you're interested in until your junior year of college until you think of a major." Why waste two years of college just taking refreshers when you just got out of high school?
 Female, Chicago

That's a waste of time if you go to college not knowing what you want to do. What if you spend a whole year thinking of a major and then you realize you don't like it? You waste another year on something else. You should go when you've decided what you want to do.
 Female, New York City

This summer I'm going to work. I'm going to take a semester off. My parents are kind of okay with it. I told them, if I don't know what I'm going to do why am I going to college and have you pay with me not knowing what I'm going to do?
 Male, New York City

Again, this perception makes good sense given the framework adopted by these students, but it is rather different from the "go to college to find a career" mentality that is more typical of some upscale families. Our sense, based on previous research, is that many middle-class families think that the lack of a college degree in itself can endanger the hopes and dreams that they have for their children. While Hispanic parents on surveys say that a college degree is essential for success, some Hispanic students do not have the same urgency about that path.

Obstacle Six: Poor Choices

The result of these obstacles often means that the students end up making poorly informed choices. While these students may be no more ill-informed than other teenagers, they apparently lack the presence of an adult who will gently (or, if necessary, firmly) correct them and get them back on the right track. As a result, they risk making pivotal, life-changing decisions based on inadequate and sometimes misleading information.

For example, one high school senior in New York told us that he had decided not to go to college in this country but to go to the Dominican Republic for his higher education. His plan was somewhat complicated:

    I want to be a psychiatrist. There's this program in the Dominican Republic that goes along with the United States. I go there for only four or four and a half years, come back up and take the test. Then I'm already on my way to being what I want to do. I'm going to get my doctor degree from down there but then I'll convert from the Dominican Republic to be a psychiatrist having a practice here. My aunt came up to me with this because one of my uncle's friends is a doctor and he was telling me his friend went down there.

There may be good reasons for his choice, but he will certainly not return to the United States in four years as a licensed psychiatrist. Ideally, he should make choices about his future educational plans with a better grasp of the options and the pros and cons of his alternatives.

We also talked to a number of students who were planning to enlist in the military shortly after graduation. Since several of these students seemed to be academically promising, we asked them why they were choosing to enlist directly rather than to go to a college ROTC program. One student explained to us that ROTC was like "the boy scouts" and that he wanted to be a marine aviator, and that the fastest way to do that was to enlist directly in the Marines and then go to college while serving in the Marines. Others felt that they could not afford to go to an ROTC program but, when asked, admitted that they hadn't really inquired about scholarship possibilities. In one of the focus groups, we asked a student who was planning on enlisting, "Let's suppose you had a friend who was also interested in the military, and suppose she went to a college ROTC program while you enlisted directly. After ten years, which of you would be further ahead in the service, you or the college grad?" The young woman answered: "I have no idea, but it's a good question."

Obviously from the perspective of a high school senior, direct enlistment can seem like a faster path to a successful military career. From the student's perspective, it makes sense to start in the service right away, doing the college work later. Certainly there are cases where direct enlistment makes more sense than ROTC, but the typical path to being an officer is, in fact, through an ROTC program. These students may have been making the right decisions for themselves, but they certainly had not explored the alternatives.

Other students told us that they were planning to go directly into full-time work, rather than "wasting" their time on an education that did not lead directly to a career. Still others were headed to trade school or other programs, about which they seemed to know very little, but which they were convinced would lead them into good jobs. What was disturbing was not so much the decisions, but the fact that they were being made with so little information.

These findings are only the result of discussion with a few students; it is important to study these issues further to see if, in fact, schools, counselors, and teachers often fail to address the needs of Hispanic young people when it comes to planning for higher education. Because these students' parents are less likely to have been to college than other parents, and therefore may not be knowledgeable about higher education in this country, these students need much more adult intervention and direction than most students. But while they may need more guidance from well-informed adults, the ones we talked to seemed to be getting very little of it from their schools.

Obstacle Seven: Limited Grasp of Planning and Organization, and a Lower Sense of Efficacy

We observed something interesting about the diversity of Hispanic youngsters from our efforts to recruit young people to participate in our focus groups. On the surface, participation in a focus group would seem to be an attractive opportunity for a high school senior. Typically, the students were offered $50 for a two-hour session, and the sessions generally took place at familiar places such as a local mall. The recruiters had no trouble identifying young people who agreed on the telephone to attend the sessions. Typically, the recruiters called the respondents several times to reconfirm and make sure the respondents did not forget the sessions.

When the time came for the actual groups, we found excellent attendance from the college-prep students. They sat politely around the focus-group room, often with their cell phone on the table next to their car keys. At the same time, many of the students from poor and working-class families just didn't show up at all. When the recruiters called the missing students to see if they were on their way, they heard things like: "I couldn't get a ride," "I couldn't get there on time, and I was afraid that if I got there late I wouldn't be paid," or "I forgot about it." We had to step up our efforts significantly to recruit these youngsters. In one case, we found that the most successful approach was to stop young people in the mall just before the group, and offer them $50 right then and there.

In a small way, attending a focus group is analogous to going to college. It requires planning, discipline, follow-through, and resources (a car, or a bus token). It also requires a certain amount of trust-that there really will be a focus group and that the student really will be paid. While a working-class student might be more enticed by the incentive, he or she might be less likely to have the organizational ability and faith to actually attend the focus group. Without wanting to belabor the point, our initial difficulties in recruiting college-maybe students (we eventually talked to a good sample of them) may point to some of the difficulties these students face in applying to and eventually attending college. It may be that students in these situations are less likely to have the resources, support, motivation, discipline, and/or faith in the system to accomplish a goal, even when they see the attractiveness of the incentive.

8The Tomás Rivera Policy Institute study came to a similar conclusion by interviewing the parents of Hispanic students. The study developed a "mini-test" of basic information about college education. They found, "College knowledge was objectively low among the Latino parents surveyed. A majority could be considered as having failed the mini-test of college knowledge, as 65.7% of the parents missed at least half of the rather straightforward information items."


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