|| Executive Summary
This project began with an enigma. In surveys, the parents of Hispanic high school seniors place enormous emphasis on higher education. By significantly higher percentages than the rest of the population, the parents of Hispanic high school seniors believe that a college education is an essential prerequisite for a good job and a comfortable middle-class lifestyle.1 But this desire for higher education does not translate into reality. Compared to non-Hispanic whites or African-American students, Hispanic students are much less likely to obtain higher education degrees. There is clearly a gap, in other words, between what Hispanic parents say they want for their children, and the paths those children actually follow.
A number of organizations have called attention to this issue and stressed its significance both for Hispanics and for the nation as a whole. Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education have joined to delve more deeply into this enigma. In order to explore some of the perceptions and attitudes that lie beneath it, Public Agenda conducted a series of eight focus groups with Hispanic high school seniors, interviewed parents of Hispanic seniors, and interviewed teachers in predominantly Hispanic high schools.
This study is a preliminary pilot project, and in the following pages we point to a number of limitations in the research. The observations here should not be read as definitive findings but rather as hypotheses for further study. Even so, we are convinced that the themes emerging from this study are compelling enough to warrant broader discussion and more definitive research. Among the most important themes are:
- Diversity among the Hispanic population. Although Hispanics are often treated as a single demographic category, we found enormous diversity among the Hispanic respondents we interviewed. They spanned a variety of national and cultural heritages, and came from all economic strata. This diversity is reflected in the college plans of the Hispanic high school seniors we interviewed. Even the relatively small number of seniors interviewed for this project reflected the broad diversity of the nation as a whole. Some youngsters resembled other college-prep students from upper-middle-class families nationwide; for them, college attendance was a foregone conclusion. Others appeared to come from impoverished, unstable families with no tradition of college attendance. Many of these young people seemed poorly prepared academically, and, by their own report, had little likelihood of attending college in the near future. Others-whom we have called the "college-maybes"-seemed poised to move on to higher education, but were hampered by a variety of obstacles. Youngsters in the "college-maybe" category offer the greatest opportunity for increasing Hispanic success in higher education.
- Obstacles. Many of these college-maybe students appear to be academically qualified for college work, but they also struggle with challenges ranging from lack of financial resources to a sometimes stunning lack of knowledge of the rules of the game. Many of these young people were the first generation (or even first member) of their family to have an opportunity to attend college. Many seemed to lack the comfortable financial resources of more upscale students. That alone is an enormous obstacle, even in areas of the country where college fees and tuitions are comparatively low. But the students we talked to also struggled with less tangible difficulties that may account for many of the choices these students make about college. Some of the most important are:
- Little adult supervision. Many of the college-maybe students we interviewed had little knowledge of higher education and no direct or clear adult guidance in making educational choices. In many cases, their parents knew little about higher education. The students' schools, teachers, and counselors did not appear to be filling the void. Based on the focus groups completed, it appears that some educators may be failing these students, providing little guidance about higher education or, according to some of the students we spoke with, not even showing much interest in their futures.
- Misinformation. Absent strong adult guidance, we found that the students we interviewed were often shockingly misinformed about higher education. This misinformation ranged from confusion about things like how to apply to college to broader misperceptions of higher education, such as a view, among several of the young people we interviewed, that higher education is only useful if a young person has already decided on a particular career.
- Competing options. Many of the students we spoke with were already working 20 to 40 hours a week, or had other work options (such as military service) available to them after graduation. These alternatives were, at least in the short run, more attractive to some students than the prospect of further education.
- Poorly informed choices. The combination of minimal adult supervision and misinformation often caused the students we interviewed to make poorly informed choices about higher education, choices that might result in a student never completing a higher education degree. While their choices might make sense given their available information, some of their decisions seemed to close doors and limit their future prospects unnecessarily.
Success stories. Still, even among the college-maybe students, we met a number who did appear to be headed for a successful college career. At least when we spoke with them, some were well on their way, with a college selected, an admissions letter, and appropriate financial aid. Often, the difference seemed to be a teacher, a role model, or a strong adult in the family who helped them stay on track. But for other Hispanic youngsters, no one seemed to be playing this role in their lives.
1 John Immerwahr with Tony Foleno, Great Expectations: How the Public and Parents-White, African-American, and Hispanic-View Higher Education (San Jose, CA: National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and Public Agenda, 2000).