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Latinas Leading the Way

By | May 16, 2015


“I never really questioned the fact that I was going to go to college. I didn’t really think there were other options.”

For Gaby Díaz Quiñones ’17, the idea of attending college was always assumed and influenced a great deal by her mother’s completion of a bachelor’s degree, she told the HPR. Díaz Quiñones’s circumstance—being a Latina in college with a mother who also went to college—may not seem out of the ordinary now. However, it is distinctly at odds with the realities facing Latinas several decades ago.

The story of the rise in Latina college enrollment rates is one that encompasses both the struggles of women and Hispanics generally to attend college. Latinas have benefited from American society’s acceptance of women attending college as well as from shifting cultural norms within the Latino community. In more recent times, Hispanic women have also benefitted from the dismantling of barriers that have held back all Hispanics. The result has been a significant improvement in college enrollment rates.

Decades of Change  

On March 8, 1968, educational reformer Sal Castro led thousands of Latino and Latina students belonging to a handful of East Los Angeles public schools to walk out of class in protest of the unfair conditions hindering them from reaching their goals of attending college. These students demanded a restructuring of the public education system so that they could take college preparatory classes. Following these walkouts, reforms were initiated to place more Latinos on the college track. The walkouts proved to be a crucial first step in the movement to promote college education for Latinos as whole.

As America broadly opened up to the idea of women attending college, so did many Latino families. In 1976, women made up 47.25 percent of students in undergraduate programs across the nation. Hispanic women trailed slightly, making up 45.36 percent of all Hispanics in undergraduate programs. Only four years later, in 1980, the percentage of women had surpassed the percentage of men enrolled in undergraduate programs. The Latina/Latino ratio also flipped. The trend has persisted; data from 2013 indicates that women make up 56.51 percent of those enrolled in undergraduate programs, with Hispanic women representing 57.73 percent of all Hispanics in undergraduate programs. The comparison is striking. In the face of greater cultural obstacles, Latina women, after accounting for ethnicity, now matriculate at a proportion greater than their non-Hispanic peers.

Not only has the ratio of women to men in college improved for Hispanic women, the absolute percentage of women that are Hispanic and enrolled in college has risen substantially. In 1980, Hispanic women constituted 4.1 percent of all women enrolled in college undergraduate programs at a time when Hispanics made up 6.4 percent of the U.S. population. Just over three decades later, in 2013, Hispanic women constituted 17.2 percent of all women enrolled in college undergraduate programs. Seeing as Hispanics constituted 17 percent of the nation’s total population in 2013, this percentage indicates that Hispanic women have made impressive gains in college enrollment.

As the data above suggests, women have, for the past several decades, broken past the stereotypes that once put them behind men in terms of college enrollment. However, to say that Latina enrollment has risen simply because Latinas followed the national trend for women in general would be to overlook several key aspects in their progress and challenges that they still face.

Early Determination

Many of the factors that have raised Latina college enrollment have raised the overall Latino rate of college enrollment. Among the contributing factors, the role of lingual assimilation is still a highly debated topic. Some argue that the use of Spanish at home inhibits students from doing well in an English-based educational system. Others argue that bilingualism actually expands the lingual abilities of students and helps them perform better in school. Numerous studies have noted that children of all ethnicities have better educational outcomes when their parents promote literacy with them at young ages, through such activities as reading out loud or visiting libraries. A National Center for Biotechnology Information report found that Latino parents who spoke English at home were more likely to participate in these literacy activities with their children. However, children who were read to in Spanish were later able to employ the reading techniques they learned when reading in English. This casts doubt as to whether the use of the Spanish language at home is an inhibiting factor.

Claims that using Spanish in the household inhibit the ability of children to do well in school may be confounded with other variables. Latino families that speak Spanish at home are more likely to be recent immigrants, have lower levels of education and income, and/or live in disadvantaged communities with lower resources.  These factors may play a larger role in influencing the educational success of Latinos and Latinas. According to one Pew Research Center study, 18 percent of U.S.-born Hispanics 25 years of age or older have obtained a college degree, whereas only 10.6 percent of foreign-born Hispanics 25 years of age or older have obtained a college degree. The gap may be attributed to the fact that native-born Hispanics may have a better cultural understanding of the United States and may be better able to navigate the educational system of the United States. Furthermore, the U.S.-born children of immigrants often tend to outperform their parents in terms of average income level, another significant factor in educational attainment. Altogether, these data indicate that the educational attainment of Hispanics will continue to improve as future generations of Hispanics continue the process of assimilation and build upon the success of their predecessors.

Another possible contributing factor to the educational success of children is parent-teacher communication. Harvard Professor María Luisa Parra studied such communication during her time at Tufts University. Dr. Parra told the HPR that as coordinator of a program that aided and analyzed Latino families transitioning their children into kindergarten called the Home-School Connection Program, “The main factor that I saw playing as a key to success for these children was the relationship between parents and teachers. Some of the parents and teachers could communicate in English, but there were some underlying cultural values and beliefs about education that were getting in the way of that communication.” Thus, there is an inherently important role to be played by the common understanding between parents and teachers of educational paths and goals.

Reaching Higher Ed

The financial resources of Latino parents have significant effects on their ability to support their children in their educational pursuits. Households with higher incomes tend to have more educated parents. This in turn means that parents from higher-income households may be better able to help their children navigate the educational system and college application process. Importantly, income level may play a role in how optimistically parents promote the idea of going to college. As Vanessa Cárdenas of the Center for American Progress told the HPR, “The financial aspect of [college] is a huge barrier . . . and even once people get into college, making sure you’re not worried from semester to semester whether you can afford it [is another potential barrier].” Díaz Quiñones admitted to facing this challenge, noting that, “something that was really important to me was going somewhere that could fully cover my financial need. When I was making my list of colleges, a lot of them I took out just because they only offered 80 percent financial need.” Díaz Quiñones’ story is just one of many highlighting how the lack of college affordability can be a deterrent to college enrollment. However, the steady rise in Latino and Latina college enrollment rates indicates that more Latinos and Latinas are being placed on the path to higher-paying jobs. This in turn will aid them in one day supporting their children in their educational pursuits.

Even if Latino families are able to overcome financial barriers and support their children in their educational pursuits, a myriad other obstacles face Latinos and Latinas once they enter college. As Cárdenas mentioned, “Figuring out how to succeed in college, having the support network, and figuring out the college culture” are all challenges that college students face. These obstacles are even further magnified for those Latinos and Latinas that are first-generation college students, as these students often lack the same guidance and support that non first-generation students receive from their parents. The struggle of adjusting to the college culture has contributed to a push at many colleges, including Harvard, to set up support networks and mentorship programs for Latinos and Latinas. While these programs help bridge the gap between enrollment and graduation, according to one study, only 41 percent of Latino students graduated within 150 percent of program time for first-time, full-time freshmen, as compared to 50 percent of all students.

While Hispanics in general face a number of barriers to college entrance and graduation, perhaps the most distinct barrier Latinas have specifically encountered is the barrier presented by cultural beliefs. Decades ago, many traditional Hispanic families believed that women should stay at home and act as homemakers until finding a husband. In contrast, the idea of leaving home to stay at a residential college was often seen as a “dangerous” idea to traditional Latino families. At best, some Latinas were able to attend junior college because it offered them the opportunity to still live at home. While it is true that more Hispanics are now attending colleges with four-year bachelors programs, research has shown that Hispanic students are still more likely to enroll in associate-level college programs that are located close their families. Furthermore, studies have shown that Hispanics in general prefer to live at home while attending college as compared to students of other ethnicities. These reports indicate that while cultural barriers have been lowered, some Latinas still face pressures to stay close to their families. However, as the aforementioned data suggests, the gradual lowering of this cultural barrier has already had significant effects on improving Latina college enrollment rates. This steady rise in Latina college enrollment rates is promising, yet at the moment only 13.9 percent of all U.S. Hispanics age 25 or older can attest to being college graduates.  Thus, while Hispanics, especially female Hispanics, have made impressive gains in terms of college enrollment and graduation rates, much remains to be done if more Latinos and Latinas are to attain college degrees.


Image Source: Flickr/COD Newsroom




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