Texas offers Hispanics more education options

FORT WORTH, Texas – Two years after a state agency identified Hispanic recruitment and retention in college as a problem, Texas universities are bolstering efforts with programs to attract and graduate more Latino students.

Texas Christian University in Fort Worth has taught its admission officers Spanish. The University of North Texas in Denton has started offering seminars in Spanish about the importance of higher education, geared toward families and Hispanic leaders. The University of Texas at Arlington is studying ways to promote tutoring and other services to its Hispanic students. Other schools in the state have implemented similar programs.

Statistics show that the percentage of Hispanics who drop out of colleges and universities is higher than among other groups. Because Hispanics make up nearly a third of Texas’ population and are the state’s fastest growing group, officials say helping more of them earn degrees is crucial to Texas’ economic future.

Many Latinos come from families and neighborhoods in which people traditionally have not gone to college, so they have few role models to encourage them or to advise them how to succeed if they get there, experts say.

“Their parents do not know what resources there are for their kids. They do not know about financial aid, they do not know about interest-free loans,” said Jay Arekere, a research scientist with the Race and Ethnic Studies Institute at Texas A&M University in College Station. “Society has to step in and provide some of the social capital that is lacking in some of these communities.”

The need to educate Latino parents about the importance and accessibility of higher education has emerged as one of the top issues among educators and Hispanic leaders.

“A lot of the parents don’t see it as an investment, they see it as a waste of time,” said Alfredo Ventura, president of the Association of Mexican-American students at UT-Arlington. “A lot of them see they can get a job at a grocery story and make $10 an hour, and that’s a fortune to them.”

Many don’t realize how much more they could earn. Over a 40-year period, a person with a bachelor’s degree makes about $1.9 million more than someone who only has a high school diploma, according to the Washington-based Employment Policy Foundation.

Only 33.8 percent of Hispanics who enrolled in four-year state colleges in 1991 earned a degree six years later, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. African-Americans had the lowest graduation rate with 28.1 percent. Asians had the highest with 58.1 percent.

Last fall, Hispanics ranked lower than blacks and Anglos in returning to campus after their freshman year at UNT, UT-Arlington and the University of Texas at Austin.

“They don’t complete a bachelor’s degree, much less go for a master’s or Ph.D.,” said Gloria Bahamon, UNT director of multicultural affairs.

Hispanics make up 32 percent of the state’s population. Hispanics and blacks are expected to outnumber whites in Texas by 2010.

If Hispanics don’t enroll in colleges at a higher rate, the percentage of Texans earning degrees will be even less than it is today, said David Gardner, assistant commissioner for planning and information services at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Texas ranks 27th in the nation in college education levels, with 23.2 percent of Texans 25 and older holding bachelor’s degrees, according to the Texas State Data Center.

At the current rate, the state will only meet 75 percent of the Coordinating Board’s goal of having 340,000 Hispanics enrolled by 2005, according to the board’s figures.

Felix A. Zamora, past president of the Texas Association of Chicanos in Higher Education, said the goal is not high enough.

“We don’t want to see that number as a ceiling. We want to see it as a floor and see that they exceed those expectations,” Zamora said. “You can bump along the way we’re going, and we’re going to be a very poor state. You’re not going to be able to compete in the global marketplace.”

UNT’s Bahamon said she and administrators from other universities such as UT-Arlington gathered this summer to form the North Texas Committee on Immigrants in Higher Education. The committee’s mission is to tell immigrant families about a new law allowing them to send their children to state colleges and get reduced tuition and access to state financial aid as other Texas residents do.

Dana Dunn, vice president of academic affairs at UT-Arlington, said her staff has met twice recently to discuss Hispanic retention and has decided on a campaign to make more Hispanic students aware of tutoring and other services available on campus.

Dunn said she has heard from administrators that too few Hispanic students are taking advantage of tutoring and learning centers, where students independently study a particular subject and receive help if they have difficulty.

This year, TCU sent letters to all incoming minority freshman inviting them to participate in a new program that offers free tutoring and monthly meetings with a counselor.

Cyndi Walsh, student development services program coordinator at TCU, said many minority students have trouble adjusting to campus if they come from high schools where their ethnicity is in the majority. She said students may feel isolated on campus, where their ethnic group is suddenly vastly outnumbered. This year’s undergraduate student body at TCU is 79 percent white.

Universities are creating programs to battle the problem, such as the buddy system run by UNT’s Student Ethnic Enrichment Center, which matches upperclassmen with freshman as mentors. Students of the same ethnicity are often matched.

Manuel Garcia y Griego, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at UT-Arlington, said retention can be boosted by getting students to form a connection to their campus by joining a group or getting involved in classes.

“It’s no accident that ROTC has the highest retention rates,” Garcia y Griego said. “Those people have a sense of belonging, a sense of mission, and it’s a fulfilling experience.”

Leonardo Garcia, 19, an international business major at UT-Arlington, said he benefited from joining groups on campus. As the son of Mexican immigrants and the first in his family to attend college, Garcia said his involvement with the Mexican-American association, a fraternity and the finance society have helped him network and make up for the guidance his parents cannot give him.

“A lot of learning takes place through those groups, not just in the classroom,” Garcia said.

The groups are teaching him how to succeed on campus, but it was his parents whose emphasis on education motivated him for college.

“They always said, `You better go to college, it’s for your own good.’ “