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  • Writer's pictureBryan Reece, Ph.D.

Latina/o Academic Equity Gaps Persist

The fastest growing race/ethnicity group in American over the last half century have been Latina/o Americans. Today, there are over 60 million Hispanics living in the U.S. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Hispanics have grown from approximately three percent of the population in 1960, to an estimate of 18.5 percent of the population in 2019 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020). In 2018, looked at all undergraduates in the U.S. with a particular eye to students of color. They found that 21.8 percent of U.S. undergrads are Hispanic (, 2020). This data demonstrates significant progress in regard to access, with Latina/o undergraduate percentages exceeding the overall Latina/o population in the U.S. Combining this finding with a similar finding for African Americans, we should take some pride in this increase in access. Latina/o advocates in particular should stop from time to time to appreciate the impact their work has had.

Higher education now needs to address academic outcomes for Latina/o students, which are similar to patterns seen for African American students. We need to help expand access for Hispanic communities to more selective institutions, decrease the disproportionate amount of debt Latina/o students accumulate to fund their education and improve their college completion rates. Latina/o students are more likely to attend for-profit private institutions than white students. Attending these institutions contributes to higher debt and lower completion rates (Espinosa & Baum, 2019). According to Libassi, between 2013 and 2015, 25.2 percent of Hispanic students completed their programs (bachelor’s degrees or certificates) from private for-profits institutions (Libassi, 2018). Regarding completion, Latina/o students have a 6-year completion rate of 56 percent (, 2020). When Latina/o students start at a community college, their 6-year completion rate for a bachelor’s degree drops to 13.8  percent (Community College Research Center, 2020).

The pathway to a bachelor’s degree for many students from Hispanic families starts at a community college. However, with only 13.8  percent of these students finishing the BA/BS journey, the community college system needs to make reforms that improve this percentage dramatically. We have addressed the access issue, but if we want to address the large inequities in society that exist for Latina/o communities, we need to make sure they are graduating at rates similar to more successful population groups. This means that social and institutional barriers must be identified and mitigated if not entirely eliminated.

Despite efforts towards cultural inclusiveness, deep-seated prejudice persists. Latina/o students often must navigate more difficult circumstances. They encounter colleges and universities that have long histories and traditions built around majority white populations. They encounter persistent slights in and out of the classroom. They often experience few cultural references on campus, and consequently they report feelings of isolation and cultural invisibility. These and many other challenges are piled on top of the significant academic challenges that all students face in college.

Some of the daily life pressures that many Latina/o students face comes from their association with immigration or recent immigration histories. Large portions of the American public have historically been cruel to recent immigrants. César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández points to a particularly negative part of this phenomenon, “crimmigration,” by which immigrants are more likely than non-immigrants to be treated like criminals. While he mainly discusses contemporary immigration, the idea of associating new immigrants with criminality holds a long, uninterrupted history in the U.S. The country has seen many immigration waves, including Irish, Italians, Jews, Eastern Europeans, Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexicans, Central and South Americans and Middle Easterners. Through these waves, immigrants have routinely experienced scapegoating, with  large segments of American society blaming new immigrants for war, social unrest, job losses and many other problems. This blame is always difficult for new immigrant populations to counter, often struggling with English, uncertain how American institutions function, afraid of retribution, and typically in a powerless position until the second or third generation.

With over 40 million immigrants, the U.S. is the most diverse country in the world. The Pew  Research Center recently assessed the state of immigration in the U.S. and that found Hispanics make up 40-50 percent of individuals living in the U.S. who were born in another country (Radford, 2019) with half or more born in Mexico and the rest mostly born in Central or South America. Hispanics make up such a large portion of recent immigration in the U.S. that many Latina/o students (including natural-born, Latina/o citizens) encounter some of the pejorative attitudes and treatments historically extended to immigrants in the U.S.

A unique subset of the immigrant experience in the U.S. that many Latina/o students encounter is known as Dreamers. Dreamers are unauthorized immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors. A typical Dreamer’s immigration story involves illegal, or unauthorized, immigration by their parents. For example, if a father or mother enters the country outside of the immigration process and brings a child with them, the child has technically entered the country illegally; however, the child had no say in the matter and likely had no idea they were entering the country outside of the legally proscribed process. Many of these students came to the U.S. under these circumstances at a very young age and did not learn of their own uncertain citizenship status until they reached adolescence. This puts these individuals in a very precarious situation. They have tenuous legal status in the U.S. and often have zero ties with the country their parents came from.

DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) was written by the federal government to protect children brought to the country in the scenario described above. The law allows these students to enjoy some U.S. benefits as if they entered the U.S. legally. During the Trump Administration, the President worked to eliminate or lessen DACA benefits, but several courts opposed his efforts. The Biden Administration has not done much to lessen the ambiguity around these students. With this federal uncertainty, some states have passed legislation to support DACA-like benefits while some have explicitly outlawed such benefits.

While DACA residents in the U.S. come from many countries, the majority are Latina/o. According to Pew, 92 percent of DACA residents are Latina/o and 79.4 percent come from Mexico. Nine of the top 10 countries of origin for DACA residents are from Latin America (Lopez & Krogstad, Key facts about unauthorized immigrants enrolled in DACA, 2017). Many of these students attend college with tuition rates and financial aid awards that would not have been possible but for DACA and similar state laws. Like many students from families with recent immigrant histories, they can have highly complicated lives. These students often live in homes with multiple generations and family care responsibilities. They may struggle with English as a first language, and most DACA students are from families with limited resources to support their children in higher education.

While institutional resources exist for most of these students, these students often do not take advantage of them. One reason, of course, is lack of knowledge about the resources, but another major reason is reluctance. With their citizenship status in somewhat of a gray area, many DACA students are reluctant to come out of the shadows for fear of deportation. In fact, many students who qualify as having DACA status have refused to register for the program under fear of political rhetoric about immigrants, especially Mexican immigrants. I saw this firsthand as President of Norco College. During the Trump presidential campaign and early in his administration, he frequently used language that expressed a tough stance on immigration. DACA students in particular felt the sting of this rhetoric. During this period, a few students came to my office legitimately fearful of possible deportation, looking for some kind of reassurance from me. The fear this rhetoric creates in DACA and DACA-eligible students keeps many of them from accessing resources that could otherwise help improve their academic success. 

To establish a society in which Latina/o students graduate from American colleges and universities at rates proportionate to the most successful group in higher education, we have work to do with regard completion. Regarding access to higher education, we have reached proportionality overall for Latina/o students. The percentage of students attending college is approximately equal to the percentage of Latina/o residents. However, the access patterns need to shift, by decreasing the number of students who attend for-profit institutions and increasing the number of Latina/o students who attend selective universities. Dreamer students need their access guarantees to be secured with renewal and support of DACA and related state programs. Regarding success in college, we need to generate greater completion of BA and BS degrees. Overall completion rates need to move from a 6-year rate of 56 percent to something in the range of 70 percent. For Latina/o students starting their journey in a community college, we need to see their 6-year BA/BS completion rates move significant distances as they have 13.8 percent completion rate. If we are able to nationally achieve these outcomes, we will be graduating a proportionate number of Latina/o students from colleges and universities. 

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