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latino college graduation rates
Patricia Gándara

Increasing educational attainment among Latino students—who are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country, and who consistently lag behind their white and Asian peers in college completion—is a priority of many advocates and policymakers. Patricia Gándara, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, has been focused on this issue for decades. She recently spoke with The Hechinger Report about how we can better address low completion rates.

Q: Excelencia in Education released a report this week that included a state-by-state fact sheet on Latino achievement in higher education, which showed a ballooning younger Latino population that experiences persistent equity gaps with their white peers. I watched a talk you gave in 2009 shortly after the release of your book The Latino Education Crisis: The Consequences of Failed Social Policies in which you cite some of the same numbers. Has nothing really changed and, if so, why is that the case?

A: The whole point of that book is that the stats are the same over three decades. Not three years—three decades! We’re just not making inroads. And this is what to me is extraordinary because if you look at what has happened demographically in the nation, and then you look at the college completion rates for Latinos, I mean we are stuck.

Why are we so stuck? What is preventing gains in this area?

We’ve been through a period since the 1980s that has been a real shift to the right in this country, and an increasingly conservative view of how it is we’re going to manage everything about social policy in this country, including education. The country has gone more and more to English-only, which is sort of the educational version of “love it or leave it.” You know, just get on with it or get out. For example, in California and Arizona we have lost half of our bilingual teachers from the schools. We have half as many as we had when they passed English-only legislation in which they said “Oh well, we’ll take care of this in a year just by immersing these kids in English,” which of course didn’t work. So we have fewer and fewer resources to work with kids in the schools, and fewer and fewer people who actually can help—seven percent of teachers nationwide are Latino, while over 20 percent of our kids are. There is a mismatch there in terms of people who understand these kids’ challenges and can meet them.

I think one of the biggest problems really is that we’ve had a big immigration, and that immigration is of people who don’t have experience in their own countries with high school and certainly don’t have that experience here in the U.S. So how do you guide kids through high school and on to college if it’s something that’s totally foreign to you and your community? You don’t have the resources to do that, and the schools don’t have the resources.

I think Washington needs to be just really awakened to the idea that this is not just some little thing that’s happening in the Southwest and that it’s a national issue.

To that point, there have been a lot of smart people working to fix this issue for a long time. And it seems to be no secret that it’s larger than an education problemthat it spills into demographics, jobs, etc. Why isn’t more done, considering we understand the implications of the demographic shift? What’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back?

The straw that breaks the camel’s back is when economically this really comes home to folks in these states that are on the edge of decline right now as a result of failing to educate this population. So you look at California and Texas—two states in which half or more of their K-12 population is Latino. And there have been studies done that look at what the consequences of that are economically for the state. The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) a few years ago talked about an 11 percent decline by 2020 in per-capita income. Well, California right now can’t close its budget gaps. That’s not all because of Latino kids. But it’s a piece of it. We’re not generating enough income because we’re not generating the kind of educational product that we need. So my hope is that people begin to connect the dots and realize this is affecting each of us because the state is not going to be able to sustain itself.

You sit on the Presidential Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, which met last week in California. What have the goals been, and what kind of progress have you made?

We have only met three times since the commissioners were appointed last year. However, this last meeting was about actually doing something. We have a program in place now where we’re going to really try and have a campaign around recruiting, retaining and rewarding Latino and bilingual teachers because they have to be part of the backbone of solving this problem. So I believe we have a date, August 30th, and we’re in the process of identifying people across the country to honor and highlight. The idea is to show to the Latino community that this is a really good thing for you to be thinking about encouraging your kid to do: Become a teacher.

What would be the greatest driver in your opinion to increase the college graduation rates of Latinos?

Parents. Parents have to understand why this is important, how you do it, how you encourage your kids. I think, generally speaking, Latino parents want their kids to do well in school and they think it’s an opportunity, but they have almost no information. The schools don’t talk to them. Nobody else talks to them. They don’t know how you go about this. Do you know how many young women I’ve talked to over the years who want to be pediatricians but they don’t realize you have to go to college to do it? They think it’s a nice job to work with babies. So who’s telling them this? Who’s telling them what it is you need to do to get there? So schools have got to work with parents. You have to have people in schools who can communicate with families, who feel comfortable and like it’s their job to do that—people whose job it is to connect with these kids and understand them.

This interview was edited for length.

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