Policy Makers Urged to Think More Broadly About Latino Students

December 14, 2009

The nation's success in achieving President Obama's degree-completion goals depends on its ability to accelerate degree completion by Latino students. Yet misconceptions about Latinos tend to produce a limited education-policy agenda.

That's according to a new report, "Taking Stock: Higher Education and Latinos," released today by Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit research organization, with support from the Lumina Foundation for Education and Jobs for the Future. The report won't be available on the organization's Web site until Wednesday.

At a panel discussion on the issue this morning on Capitol Hill, Deborah Santiago, vice president for policy and research at Excelencia and the report's author, said public policy is usually based on a very limited view of Latinos that defines them as immigrants, high-school dropouts, and English-language learners who do not value education.

"When we approach public policy with those priorities, it marginalizes us," she said. "I'm not saying that we don't have to address undocumented students, but the reality is that they make up about 7 percent of students in K-12 and about 2 percent in higher education."

She acknowledged that while Latinos are more likely than members of other ethnic groups to fit the stereotype, a majority of Latinos do not. Rather, a majority of Latinos are native-born, are high-school graduates, speak English as their dominant language, and greatly value higher education.

Ms. Santiago posited that public policy must be couched in those terms, and doing so could foster the educational success of Latino students.

"However, conversations about Latinos in higher education are generally limited to two topics — Hispanic-serving institutions and undocumented students," she said.

Panel members agreed that changes, especially in the retention and graduation of Latinos in higher education, were essential, considering the ethnic group's large numbers. By 2025, nearly one-quarter of the nation's college-age population will be Latino.

"The math is clear," said Travis Reindl, state policy and campaigns director at CommunicationWorks. a public-affairs firm, "The president's goal is completely unattainable without Latinos."

Data gathered for the report's analysis included focus groups and interviews with those shaping policies at the higher-education level, students enrolled or graduating from higher education, and those who provided direct services to students and communities from 2006 to 2009.

Ms. Santiago said that Monday's report release and panel discussion are just the beginning of the organization's commitment to Latino student success in higher education. The group plans to hold a forum in April to discuss public-policy strategies.