By Khalil Abdullah

New America Media

Dec 06, 2009

Nine in ten young Latinos think that college education is important for success in life. But only half that number – about 48 percent — say they themselves plan to get a college degree. That’s according to the 2009 National Survey of Latinos released by the Pew Hispanic Center this year.

The “education gap,” as the study dubs it, portends dire long-term consequences both for Latinos and for the United States. Seventy-four percent of “Latino youth, ages 16 to 25, with a high school diploma or less, are not enrolled and have no plans to return to school.” The reason most of them cited for not continuing their education was “the need to support family.”

Putting family first is a strength in any community. But current financial pressures on today’s Latino youth could be forcing them to feel like they have to make difficult choices between their family and their future.

Degrees do matter. A 2007 survey by The College Board found those with a bachelor’s degree “earn over 60 percent more than those with a high school diploma.” The estimated difference between the degrees over a lifetime of work is $800,000.

Some argue that expanding and improving vocational curricula that lead to jobs in the “real world” may be a better use of the country’s energy than trying to raise the number of college graduates. But for many immigrant communities, the attainment of higher education is the gateway to a better future.

Educators and community leaders gathered recently in Washington, D.C., to discuss the crisis in education at a daylong symposium sponsored by the Education Writers Association, Pew Hispanic Center, and the National Panel on Latino Children and Schooling under the rubric of New Journalism on Latino Children.

Juan Sepulvada, executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans, posed the question: “What is it going to take to create a college-going culture in our communities?” while fending off criticism that the Obama administration has yet to demonstrate a clear policy vision of how to accomplish that goal.

Two students who had enrolled in Youth Build Charter School in Washington, D.C., to pursue their GEDs after dropping out of high school were joined by students from Einstein High School in nearby Maryland, and one Einstein graduate now in college. Across the board, their pride in being Latino was evident, as were their aspirations to attend college, attitudes consistent with findings in the Pew data.

Einstein student Alicia Esconto, who has ambitions of pursuing a communications degree, said simply, “I am expected to go to college.”

She said her father is a plumber who would have preferred that she set her sights on becoming a doctor or lawyer. “I don’t want you to have to work as hard as I have to work,” she recounted him saying. But she said that many of her peers have told her that “they’d rather work full-time than study full-time.”

Marilyn Molina left high school in her senior year. At 21, she has three young children, but with assistance from Youth Build, a youth and community development program, she was able to identify daycare resources, thus enabling her to study for her GED. She said she was sometimes unfairly stereotyped by schoolmates at her former school because of her tattoos – “What gang are you in?” — and dismissed by educators there who said that Latinos were not going to amount to anything. Yet, regardless of her circumstances, she said, “My family has always expected me to do the best in whatever grade,” including college.

The Pew study did note a marked difference between foreign-born and U.S.-born Latinos. “Native-born Latinos ages 18 to 24 are more likely to say they are enrolled in school than foreign-born Latinos in the same age group – 40 percent versus 20 percent,” the report said.

The Pew survey showed other barriers contributing to the lag in Latino educational attainment. Respondents said parents of Hispanic students don’t play an active role; Hispanic students know less English; and too many teachers don’t know how to work with Hispanic students.

Symposium presenters, however, stressed that one must proceed with caution in evaluating the answers because the underlying dynamics with Latino families and cultures are often complex and nuanced. Parents may not play an active role because of their own inability to provide academic assistance if they are predominantly Spanish speakers. Also, they may be unfamiliar with a school’s institutional culture.

But for many Latinos, it is their feeling of duty toward family that could be holding them back. One student at Montgomery College, a two-year institution, who was working part-time, said her parents were anxious for her to finish her studies and join the work force. “When I asked, ‘What about me?’ my mom got really mad at me,” she said. Her mother told her, “Family first, and then yourself.”


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