I am a college graduate because of my family. Growing up as military brats, my siblings and I knew our parents expected us to go to college. While they themselves had not gone, they made their expectations clear and set standards high. But they didn't know how to navigate the higher-education system. It was my job to figure out how to actually get to college.
My family made a powerful sacrifice that still humbles me to this day. They let me go. I don't mean they allowed me to go to college—that had always been their goal. Rather, they let me leave the protective support of my home and trusted me to succeed in a new environment more than 3,000 miles away.
My experience is not unique. For many Latino students who are the first in their families to go to college, the role of family is critical, for a variety of reasons. Family bonds are strong for many Latinos, which reinforces both cultural ties and a family's sense of responsibility for success. Many Latino families have lower incomes and must struggle to cover college costs. Latino parents who immigrated to this country to provide more opportunities for their children are heavily invested in their success. There is a strong Latino family identity, and the success of children reflects upon the entire family.
Family is so important among Latinos that one-third of Latino undergraduates continue to live at home while they are enrolled.
For some students, families are supportive but not directly involved. For others, family members are highly involved in almost every decision a student makes about college. In yet others, older siblings play a critical role because of their own knowledge of the college experience. Studies have shown that Latino families value education and are more likely than other groups to believe that a college degree will lead to a better life.
However, our educational-attainment levels do not mirror that finding. Why? It is commonly assumed that family responsibilities and lack of family support prevent Latino students from going to college. While this may be the case for some students, in fact, Latinos' lower educational-attainment levels often have more to do with two key factors: the relative youth of the population—the median age of Latinos in the United States is 27, compared with 37 for all groups—and many families' limited knowledge of the college process, including costs, options, and support systems. National data show that Latino undergraduates are likelier than members of other racial or ethnic groups to be the first in their families to go to college. Latino families frequently lack knowledge of financial-aid options, the increased educational expectations of students beyond high school, and the distinctions among different types of colleges.
Colleges that recognize the important role of Hispanic families are finding innovative ways to educate families on such issues, and to include them in recruitment and orientation efforts. Some Hispanic-serving institutions—defined by the government as nonprofit colleges whose undergraduate enrollment is at least 25 percent Hispanic—do this particularly well, and can offer lessons that might help other types of colleges. At last count there were 293 such institutions, representing nearly 9 percent of all nonprofit colleges but enrolling over half of the nation's Latino undergraduates. Their concentrated enrollment of Latino students is not solely the result of institutional engagement, of course; it also reflects regional demographics and self-selection.
But those colleges that really serve (not just enroll) Latino students understand the crucial role of families. Following are some examples of their efforts to engage parents and families:
n The University of Texas at El Paso offers a parents' orientation in addition to its standard student orientation. Staff members provide families with detailed information—in Spanish and English—about the university's programs and expectations. The goal is to help family members support students in ways that go beyond providing financial help. The orientation session explains how the college experience differs from high school, and provides information about financial aid and academic and other support services available to students.
n Several Hispanic-serving colleges have mother-daughter programs, which work with two generations to encourage girls to graduate from high school and enroll in college. Organizers of such programs believe that the most important role model for young Hispanic girls is found within the family. Colleges work within their communities to identify Hispanic girls who are at risk of dropping out of high school, and organize activities to help girls and their mothers set goals for academic and career success. Mothers and daughters take part in monthly career and cultural activities for an entire year, and the colleges follow up with workshops and seminars in later years. Colleges also recruit community and student volunteers to serve as role models and mentors.
n Loyola Marymount University, in Los Angeles, is an emerging Hispanic-serving institution, with Hispanic enrollment of just over 20 percent. It conducts outreach activities within the Latino community several times a semester. It also encourages family involvement in campus events held for students, such as orientation sessions and overnight activities. Current students and alumni take part in these events.
n Organizations outside higher education, including Univision—the nation's largest Spanish-language television network—and the Hispanic Scholarship Fund have created special media campaigns aimed at informing Latino parents about college. A trusted source of information in the Latino community, Univision has embarked on an ambitious, multiplatform campaign called "Es el Momento" ("The Time Is Now"). It is using television, radio, community events, and the Internet to reach Spanish-speaking parents with information and community resources to help them navigate the pathway from childhood to college.
If the United States is to reach its national goal of raising college-completion rates, more Latinos must attend and graduate from college, and all types of colleges need to understand the role Latino families play in the process.
Today my three siblings and I have all earned college educations. And so has my father. It took him 20 years, but he earned his degree while raising a family and working full time. His persistence, support, and example reinforced our family commitment to a college education for all. And our legacy of family involvement in higher education continues: My eldest niece recently graduated from high school, and she, too, has enrolled in college.