Latino Education Experts Discuss Efforts to Get Latinos Into and Through College and on to More Prosperous Lives

Just a few years ago, Latinos were enrolling in colleges and universities across the United States in record numbers. Now, two years into the pandemic, that trend seems to be reversing. Education experts say Latinos are losing faith in higher education as a tool for economic mobility because the tradeoffs for pursuing a degree are so high. Many Latino students have had to choose between taking on debt to pursue a degree or helping their parents supplement the income they lost during the pandemic.

Last month, a group of influential Latino education experts at the 2022 UnidosUS Annual Conference in San Antonio held a plenary session titled “Latino Trends in Higher Education” in which they discussed how to get Latinos into college and on to more prosperous lives.

The speakers and the Latino educational leaders they referenced in their discussions are living proof of the impact that educated Latinos can have on their communities and the nation.

Keep up with the latest from UnidosUS

Sign up for the weekly UnidosUS Action Network newsletter delivered every Thursday.

Reimagining Education, Growing the Middle Class

While Latinos, the fastest growing population in the United States, are experiencing some of the greatest educational and wealth gaps, participants in last month’s plenary session affirmed that Latinos are also growing in their influence on public policy. While Latinos are still underrepresented in government, they are nevertheless taking on notable roles in education policy.

Melody Gonzales, the plenary moderator, is a prime example. In the midst of the pandemic, President Joe Biden named her the executive director of the White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity for Hispanics. President Biden also named Miguel Cardona as the U.S. secretary of education.

“This is our moment—es nuestro momento,” Gonzales told the audience. According to Gonzales, Secretary Cardona often says that reimagining education to launch hardworking families into the middle class and beyond requires advocates to do two things: “One is boldly and unapologetically addressing opportunity gaps and achievement gaps, and the other is to make higher education, more inclusive, more affordable.”

To this end, the Biden administration is working to increase funding for Title I schools and invest in growing and training a more diverse educational workforce. These efforts include the recruitment of special education teachers, bilingual professionals, and paraprofessionals who are culturally conversant with Spanish-speaking, Latinx, and other immigrant youth. The Biden administration is also working to ensure that $22 billion   in federal pandemic-era recovery funds from the American Rescue Plan are channeled into fixing broken funding for local education agencies.

To further improve the Latino population’s access to higher education, the Biden administration has also put $11 billion into Hispanic-serving institutions, which are colleges and universities where more than 25% of enrolled students are Latino.

One of the biggest accomplishments in Secretary Cardona’s tenure has been the forgiveness of a record $25 billion in student loans, which provided debt relief for 1.3 billion people. Some 127,000 borrowers have benefitted from the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. In addition, loans have been forgiven for 400,000 borrowers with permanent disabilities and for nearly 700,000 borrowers who attended institutions that engaged in predatory lending practices.

Drawing from Community Cultural Wealth to Create Financial Wealth

Noting the challenges they and their families faced in previous generations, panelists welcomed these new efforts to make higher education more accessible for Latinos.

“I come from a family that valued education, even though they didn’t know what that meant,” said panelist Dr. Eyra Pérez, vice president of institutional capacity for the national non-profit Excelencia in Education. Pérez grew up just outside San Antonio in Eagle Pass, one of the poorest zip codes in America. “My parents and many, many different parents right now say, ‘I just want them to have a better life.’ They don’t know what that means, but they know what it does not mean. And it does not mean living paycheck to paycheck or working a tremendous amount of hours in this terrible heat we have right now in San Antonio.”

Pérez credited a high school counselor who took notice of her and her good grades for helping her forge a path to college. Once there, she vowed to widen that path for many others who lack the support and access that they need to succeed. But she also credited her success to the cultural wealth of a community that was financially poor.

“I never felt poor. And now I understand why. It was community cultural wealth. It was la familia that I was a part of, and not just my little family, but so many tías and tíos that were not really blood tías and tíos, but they were comadres y compadres,” she said. “And that’s really what higher ed needs to look like for our students to succeed, because that’s the environment that we thrive under.”

Dr. Victor Sáenz, chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Texas at Austin, also credited the Latinos whose shoulders he stands on.

Sáenz is a fourth-generation Texan, and in 1965 his father became one of the first South Texas Latinos to graduate from the University of Texas. His father went on to serve as an educator and school leader for 50 years, and this legacy is a big reason why Sáenz and his siblings chose to become educators.

“That’s core to who I am as an educator, as a public servant,” he said. Sáenz added that he credits his college advisor, Sylvia Hurtado, for serving as his academic tía while he was studying for his doctoral degree at the University of California, Los Angeles. Hurtado mentored him and inspired him to become an academic and to rise through the ranks of educational leadership, but she also challenged him to ensure that his research and engagement work would positively impact the growing Latinx community.

In 2007, Sáenz arrived at his current tenure-track position at the University of Texas at Austin knowing the value it plays in uplifting the Latino community.

“I’ve devoted every moment since to doing just that,” he said.

Dr. Emily Calderón Galdeano, another panelist, is chief impact and strategy officer for UP Partnership, a coalition of 175 partners working to align data and resources to promote educational equity. “For me,” Calderón Galdeano said at the panel, “higher education is a promise of what is possible for our community. We know that, with our numbers, we’re still not where we need to be, but for me that is the promise–what’s available, what we can do, what is possible.”

The daughter of immigrants, Calderón Galdeano was born in the United States to a Salvadoran father with an eighth-grade education and a Mexican mother with a college degree. But even with her mother’s education as a reference, Calderón Galdeano still struggled to navigate the U.S. college system and the possibilities of life afterwards.

“We’re looking at possibilities for credentials,” said Calderón Galdeano, “possibilities for economic mobility, possibilities for being able to provide my family a little bit more than my parents were able to provide for me, and moving on and creating this cycle of increasing.”

Emerging Data, Trends, and Lessons Learned

A recent study by Excelencia in Education shows a mixed outlook for Latinos in higher education over two years after the onset of the pandemic.

“The good news is that Latino students have actually stayed in the same momentum in college completion. The bad news is that our retention and our enrollment are down significantly,” said Pérez. “We knew there was a technology issue and a digital divide. We knew that our students couldn’t afford college. We knew that our students were having to work to be able to afford college. The pandemic just made that even worse.”

Excelencia in Education is working to improve educational outcomes by asking higher education institutions how they welcome and embrace Latinos and other underrepresented groups, beyond traditional financial aid.

Other methods for improving educational outcomes for Latinos include increasing the numbers of faculty, expanding diversity programs, extending the operational hours of student services, and providing students with material resources such as food pantries and “closets for success,” where students can find the clothes they need for job interviews.

“You get [the students] there. Do they stay? What do we do with them?” asked Pérez.

Diversifying the Higher Ed Workforce

Gonzalez noted that Latinos now represent 27% of the K-12 student population. Prior to the pandemic, Latinos made up 20% of the population at the higher education level. However, only 10% of federal employees are Latino, only 2% of educators are Latino males, and Latino college presidents are rare.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Gonzalez said, asking panelists to discuss what efforts are currently underway to improve this outlook.

“This is a pipeline issue, and you continue to follow it all the way from grade school to secondary and now to graduate school and beyond,” said Sáenz, who pointed out that less than 5% of the faculty at the University of Texas are Latino, a number that hardly represents the state’s high population of Latinos.

Sáenz hailed the efforts of progressive school boards and grassroots organizers to get in front of the pipeline issue for Latino students by implementing culturally responsive K-12 curricula that acknowledge the assets diverse students bring to the classroom.

“How can we value the knowledge assets we bring that are already embedded within our culture to enrich the learning opportunities for our young people and to then design pipelines, to grow our own educators?” he asked.

But even with all those cultural assets, many Latinos still lack the financial assets to pay for college. “Higher ed is expensive, and the Pell grant amount has not really gone up to keep pace with tuition,” said CalderónGaldeano. “That’s one of the things we need to be working on as a state and as a community, that we be deliberate and focused on saying, ‘you know, this has to change.’” Calderón Galdeano added that this was especially true in states with large Latino populations such as Texas, where, in less than a decade, white college graduates have become the minority.

Closing the Gaps

Pérez encouraged education advocates to poner ojo—to pay attention—to the research and the desegregated data that Excelencia in Education has worked to collect for its Growing What Works Database.

“It’s really going to be about institutions assessing themselves in what they are offering and who they serve,” Pérez said.

Excelencia in Education furthers efforts to assess higher education programs by calling on the community to nominate highly effective programs. But, she warned, budgeting constraints often make it difficult to scale up programs. “We don’t ever get real budgets. We don’t get staff. We just get your little office, and you run the program for 25 students, and you do tremendous work with those 25 students. But then again, what about all the other students who don’t get into that 25-person program?”

What’s evident, said Pérez, is that Latinos thrive in collaborative learning communities, and that it takes a community to get Latinos into post-graduate programs that then allow them to go into classrooms or provide leadership at all educational levels.

“It goes back to the cultural value of being in familia,” Pérez added.

“If we’re gonna try some new initiative or program, we gotta make sure that it’s built around a culture of evidence,” added Sáenz, noting that the Growing What Works Database and the Department of Education both offer a wealth of impactful information.

Plus, Sáenz added, Latinos should look back at their own historic contributions to educational equity. For example, in the 1947 Mendez v. Westminster case, a Latino family in California successfully argued that their daughter Sylvia Mendez should be allowed to attend a school where children of her darker skin tone were not admitted. The case marked the first time a U.S. court found segregation unconstitutional, causing that state to desegregate its schools and paving the way for the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, in which the U.S. Supreme Court abolished all formal school segregation. In 1972, Latinos locked arms with Chinese parents who sued the state of California for not providing sufficient support to English learners. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in their favor, unanimously deciding that California had violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And in 1982, in the Plyler v. Doe case, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with a group of undocumented Latino parents who argued that denying education to their undocumented children was unconstitutional.

“We’ve got a whole litany, a rich legal and policy history of advances that we have made that really have helped to… level [the] playing field of opportunity for our community,” Sáenz said.

Sáenz also encouraged Latinos to engage in conversations about how college coursework can evolve to meet market demands. For example, the program Building a Talent Strong Texas is working to create hybrid educational models that combine workforce training with curricula from both two-year and four-year colleges and universities.

“If you’re not already engaged in those conversations around the kinds of courses and content  being taught in our local schools, now’s the time to get involved,” Sáenz said.

Pérez likened the pandemic era of education to the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy and her friends pulled back the curtain to expose the Wizard.

“We’ve all seen behind the curtain,” she said. “Nobody can say, ‘oh, I didn’t know that those inequities exist.’ Everyone knows that they exist.”