success stories

New study probes lack of college-bound Latino students

By Jennifer C. Vergara
Catholic News Service

Lack of knowledge regarding college preparation on the part of their parents leads to a low matriculation rate in post-secondary institutions among Latino students, a new study by the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute found.

Titled "College Knowledge: What Latino Parents Need to Know and Why They Don't Know It," the study noted that Latinos have the highest high school drop-out rate and will have the lowest number of college graduates by 2015.

The study polled 1,054 Latino parents in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles over the telephone, testing their knowledge on what they needed to do or know to help prepare their children to go to college. Of the eight questions asked, 65.7 percent did not know at least half the answers.

Then, researchers isolated 41 parents for in-depth case studies and discovered that lower incomes, less education, language barriers, inadequate counseling programs in high schools, and limited outreach programs from colleges and universities all contribute to the information gap suffered by Latino parents.

Bernadette Robert, assistant vice president for student affairs at Mount St. Mary's College in Los Angeles, said the study results showed exactly why programs like her college's Student Ambassador Program are needed. "Our students go back to their high schools and act as role models to the other students there," Robert said.

Started in 1991, the program sends out around 45 ambassadors each year to 40 inner-city high schools to act as peer educational counselors.

"The program is not for recruiting students to come to Mount St. Mary's," Robert explained. "It's to encourage them to go to any college or university. It's to encourage them to complete high school and to help them know they're taking the right classes in high school, and to set their sights on continuing their education."

The student ambassadors are trained before starting their yearlong mission -- for which they are given a minimal stipend -- and are knowledgeable about everything from how to get financial aid to what is the best school for the desired degree.

More importantly, said Robert, "The student ambassadors give out the message to students in those high schools that 'if we can do it, so can you.'"

Almost 75 percent of the student ambassadors are Latina, Robert said. She added that, because of the relationship they build with students over their year-long work, the ambassadors often interact with parents, getting "invited to graduations, family outings."

Through such activities, the student ambassadors, most of whom are bilingual, have the opportunity to reach out to parents who may otherwise feel alienated or daunted by the education system, said Robert.

The "College Knowledge" study found that Latino children often function as information conduits for their parents, largely because of lack of English-language skills on their part. Children are asked to interpret during dialogues with teachers or counselors -- who, more often than not, cannot speak Spanish either -- and to translate recruiting materials from colleges and universities.

The study recommended publication of bilingual college information materials and hiring of more bilingual staff. It also encouraged school districts with Latino immigrant constituencies to "review their programs on how to disseminate college knowledge to non-English-speaking parents."

Maria Casillas, president of Families in School, a new organization working for greater involvement of parents as schools' partners in the learning process, said the "College Knowledge" study showed that teachers and counselors are main information channels. "Well, guess what? We have a counseling ratio of 750 to 1 in a high school," she said.

Robert said Mount St. Mary's student ambassadors help fill in that gap and act as peer education counselors to the high school students they interact with at the outreach schools.

She said overworked counselors usually end up assisting only the top 5 percent of students in their schools. Students who don't fall in the top 5 percent "don't feel confident enough, don't necessarily feel they're college material," said Robert.

Many of the students the Mount St. Mary's program reaches -- an average of about 5,000 a year -- "are kids that might fall in between the cracks ... who don't know they could fit in one of the many college systems out there."

Robert noted that, while the program's impact may be tremendous for an individual student, it is only a drop in the bucket. "We're grass-roots," she said, "and we do what we can."