When I emigrated to the U.S. from Peru 30 years ago, I spoke no English at all. My first job was as a dishwasher at a Holiday Inn in Des Moines, Iowa. I was making less than the minimum wage, but it was the only job I could get. So, as I tell the many students and parents whom I encounter in my work, if I can do it, anybody can do it.
As an ACT employee and a native Spanish-speaker, I’m often asked what I think will help improve college and career readiness for Hispanic students.
College aspirations among Hispanic students are high, with 82 percent of ACT-tested Hispanic graduates saying they plan to enroll in postsecondary education, compared to 86 percent among all 2015 graduating high school seniors.
The caveat is that their readiness trails their ambitions. ACT’s recent report on Hispanic students in the 2015 graduating class shows that, while the percentage of Hispanic graduates meeting three of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks has grown slightly — from 23 to 25 percent — since 2011, it still lags significantly behind the 40 percent national average.
This achievement gap is surely unsurprising to anyone who even casually follows education trends. However, the answers to the question of how we can close this gap — and prepare more Hispanic students for college and career success —are less obvious.
One way, of course, is access to more rigorous coursework. Across four key subjects — English, reading, mathematics, and science — Hispanic students who took more challenging coursework were much more likely to meet the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks than those who didn’t.
I participated in Parent Academies that ACT co-hosted in partnership with Univision this past year in 10 major cities, where I met with students and their families individually and in groups, providing them information in Spanish about college preparation and affordability.
This was the first year that ACT joined Univision to host these events. We expected around 6,000 people to show up in total. Six months later, we had over 20,000 who had attended these academies across the country.
The turnout at these events is a true testament to the hopes of these Hispanic families. They want their children to achieve some type of postsecondary education, and they want to do everything they can to ensure their future educational and career success.
But there’s a built-in disadvantage for many of these students, as their parents who primarily speak Spanish often can’t help them with their homework. There’s also the fact that students of color, including Hispanic students, are disproportionately attending underfunded schools.
In my meetings with Hispanic families, I have seen an acute and often unmet need: There’s a dearth of educational resources available to them. Aside from advocating for more quality and equitable education resources and instruction for students, we have to focus on supporting their families with more and better information and guidance.
Which brings me back to the Parent Academies: It’s all about information that’s accurate for parents as well as students. These families are hungry for such information, which is another reason for the unexpectedly large turnout.
We know that parental/family involvement is strongly influential in determining a student’s readiness and expectations for attending and affording college. We also know even the best-educated parents have trouble wading through the morass of forms and financial estimates that college and aid applications entail. If getting an accurate handle on college affordability is daunting for them, it’s not too hard to imagine why many families where English is not often spoken find it intimidating, if not impossible, to navigate.
Many first-generation Hispanic immigrants don’t have the same opportunities and resources to learn that I had 30 years ago. And it was hard for me then.
In the current environment — where many people question the rights and access immigrants have to services and programs in our country — Hispanic parents are often fearful, misguided, and taken advantage of in their quests to build a better life for their children.
And there are common misunderstandings about education that occur regularly in the Hispanic community. For example, many think there is a fee for completing the FAFSA, because there are individuals in their community who take advantage of their lack of English and charge a fee to help confused parents complete the form.
Even if parents/families want to learn English, many have to work multiple jobs and long hours, leaving them little time to study a non-native language. It’s not uncommon for them to have had little formal education, compounding the challenge of learning the language.
So they rely on their children to translate. They encounter lots of strange words like “FAFSA” and others that a teenager may not be familiar with.
Beyond the nuts and bolts of providing college affordability and application information, we have to do more to engage these parents and do it earlier, so they have the resources and understanding they need to be effective advocates for their children.
Without such efforts, the achievement gap will remain unclosed, and we will lose the opportunity to build educational achievement and a path out of poverty for many students with the ability and drive to succeed.
Juan Garcia is senior director of the ACT Center for Equity in Education.