NORTH HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Miguel Hernandez spoke neither Spanish nor English when he arrived in California from a small Mexican mountain village four years ago.
Like many indigenous residents of remote towns in the state of Oaxaca, Hernandez grew up speaking a Zapotecan dialect rather than Spanish. That meant he had to overcome even more obstacles than other Mexican immigrants, unable to communicate with most of his classmates and teachers at North Hollywood High School.
“I wanted to cry,” said Hernandez, 18. But he learned Spanish and then English, staying after school for tutoring and moving on to honors and Advanced Placement classes.
Now he is about to become the first person in his family to go to college.
Hernandez, who plans to enter California State University at Northridge in the fall to study computer science, is part of a big increase in California in the proportion of Hispanics who graduate from high school, reflecting an effort to get more of them to go on to higher educations.
Since 2006, the share of California Hispanic 19-year-olds with a high school diploma has increased from 74 percent to 86 percent, according to the Campaign for College Opportunity, a California advocacy group. Nationwide, the percentage of Hispanic or Latino adults ages 25 or over with a diploma has risen from 53 percent in 1995 to 72 percent last year, says the advocacy and research group Excelencia in Education.
But even with the improvement, those numbers lag those of other groups: The 72 percent figure is 12 percentage points lower than the next-lowest ethnic group.
But the improvement is an important step at a time when Hispanics are the fastest-growing group of people nearing college age across the country, and when there’s concern about the effect on the economy of failing to produce enough college graduates for industries that need them.
By 2020, two-thirds of all jobs will require postsecondary education, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
The improvements here are the result of concerted initiatives to help a group that now comprises nearly 40 percent of California’s population — so large that increased high school graduation rates in California have been enough to lift the proportion of Hispanics who are finishing high school nationwide.
“California’s part of the reason we’re seeing significant progress,” said Deborah Santiago, CEO of the advocacy and research group Excelencia in Education.
There’s still work to be done. That growing number of Hispanic high school graduates remains less likely than white high school grads to continue on to four-year universities. But the needle is beginning to move.
The massive Los Angeles Unified School District, where 73 percent of the 694,000 students are Hispanic, has started infusing even its elementary schools with the college-going message. That is meant to inspire not only the students, but also parents who didn’t attend college themselves, said Jesus Angulo, the district’s director of academic and counseling services.
“We’re really looking to build agency with our parents and students about the expectations they’ll be facing,” Angulo said.
Since 2016, the district has required all students to take courses they need to prepare for admission to the University of California and California State University systems. Those entrance requirements have been a challenge for Hispanics; just 39 percent of them statewide meet the UC or Cal State admission standards, compared to 52 percent of white students, says the Campaign for College Opportunity.
Meanwhile, institutions such as California State University at Los Angeles have worked hard to explain higher education to immigrant and Spanish-speaking parents who may not be familiar with U.S. college admissions and financial aid.
Schools need to be assertive about reaching out to those parents by calling them, visiting them or otherwise making sure they understand that resources are available, Santiago said.
“You can’t just put together a program and expect parents to show up,” she said. “Don’t just translate a website and think you’ve done something.”
At North Hollywood High School, part of the Los Angeles district, parents without a college education were wary of sending their children to college, counselor Veronica Gonzalez said. But the high school’s efforts are starting to pay off, she said.
Counselors routinely invite parents to Spanish-language workshops on college applications and financing. Recent sessions have been packed, Gonzalez said, often with Spanish-speaking immigrant parents.
“I think it’s the older siblings that have gone to college that is breaking that cycle,” Gonzalez said in her tiny office sandwiched between two classrooms. “It’s the fact that there’s support and the parents feel comfortable.”
North Hollywood senior Rebecca Alvarado’s three older sisters are among those who have broken the cycle; they all went to college despite their immigrant parents’ lack of a college education. Alvarado will attend Cal State Northridge in the fall.
Her sisters “were an example and I wanted to be like them,” Alvarado said. “Our parents came here to give their kids a better life. The way to reward them is to get an education.”
A few miles away, at Los Angeles’ James Monroe High School, Matthew Vasquez said he planned to be the first in his family to go to college. His two older brothers didn’t finish high school, but Vasquez is slated to attend University of California, Berkeley in the fall.
“I decided to take a different path,” Vasquez said. “I come from a low-income household and I don’t want to continue that kind of lifestyle.”
Individual success stories make a big difference and build on themselves, said Santiago, of Excelencia in Education.
“It creates a ripple effect,” she said. “Once you know someone who has been there and has found success, it helps.”
The work has only started. While more of California’s college students than ever are Hispanic — 40 percent, up from 22 percent in 2000 — most of them still opt for community colleges instead of universities, the Campaign for College Opportunity notes.
Nearly half of California’s population aged 18 to 24 is Hispanic, the Campaign for College Opportunity says. Twenty-one percent of UC, 43 percent of Cal State, and 45 percent of community college students are Hispanic.
Just 18 percent of California’s Hispanic adults have a college degree, the organization says, compared to 52 percent of whites. Nationwide, 21 percent of Hispanics have some sort of a degree, compared to 46 percent of whites and 29 percent of blacks, according to U.S. Census data analyzed by the Lumina Foundation. (Lumina is among the funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)
The Los Angeles school district has tried to encourage students to go straight to four-year colleges by providing free SAT testing, but even many of its students who get into universities instead choose community colleges.
“It’s a trend that we have noticed and are trying to dig into,” said Kelly Gonez, an LAUSD board member who noted, as an Hispanic herself, that she faced the same challenges as many of these students: immigrant parents who didn’t attend college and the pressure to stay close to home.
In the UC system, about 75 percent of Hispanic freshmen are the first in their families to attend college, the Campaign for College Opportunity says. At Cal State, about half of Hispanic students fit that description.
The huge Hispanic population in California in general and Los Angeles in particular has made it ground zero for these challenges. But schools nationwide face the same issues.
While 44 percent of U.S. adults have college degrees, just under a quarter of Hispanics have one, according to Excelencia in Education. A contributing factor could be that those families don’t like to rely on loans for college; Hispanics borrow less than other racial groups, Excelencia has found.
But far more young Hispanics today were born in the United States than two decades ago, and that has begun to make a difference, said Richard Fry, a senior research associate at the Pew Research Center who studies demographic changes.
U.S.-born Hispanics do better in school than immigrants, he said.
“Moving, whether for a child or for a young adult,” he said, “is stressful.”
This story about Hispanic students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.