Latino College Completion Campaign Moves Forward With Collaboration Strategy

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by Lois Elfman

Dozens of organizations around the country share the goal of improving Latino college student success, but there’s been little progress in closing the educational-attainment gap.

Latinos significantly lag behind Whites, Blacks and Asians/Pacific Islanders in degree completion. The majority of Latinos in America—87 percent—say a college education is extremely important, according to a poll last spring sponsored by The Associated Press, Univision Communications, The Nielsen Company and Stanford University. Yet, Census data show that only 13 percent of Hispanics have a bachelor’s degree or higher as compared with 20 percent of Blacks, 53 percent of Asians and 33 percent of non-Hispanic Whites.

Although the number of Latinos attending and completing college has risen, those increases are not commensurate with increases in the population of Hispanics, who represent 15.8 percent of the U.S. population.

The desire to close the gap is there, but what has been missing, one education advocate believes, are vehicles for collective action.

“We’ve talked a lot about it, but when you actually look at the progress in capturing this human potential … there needs to be much more,” says Sarita E. Brown, president of Excelencia in Education, a Washington, D.C.-based education policy think tank focused on Hispanic issues.

“There are many ways that organizations can more effectively collaborate. Organizations with similar missions and purpose can be more efficient and effective at connecting and producing results,” Brown adds.

Excelencia this month launches a new initiative that brings the leadership of various higher education advocacy, philanthropy, public policy and federal agencies together to work on ways of increasing the number of Latinos earning a college degree. The campaign, which launched Sept. 8, follows a policy forum of the same name, “Ensuring America’s Future by Increasing Latino College Completion,” last spring that brought 80 professionals together in Washington. 

The effort, to run through Jan. 31, 2011, calls for educational groups to collaborate in order to eliminate competition and unnecessary duplication of programs. Organizations may be asked to step up efforts in certain areas, defer some efforts to other organizations that may do it better, work together in developing and enhancing existing programs, or forgo introducing new programs that another organization already has established. Organizations invited to join include the College Board, Kellogg Foundation, National Council of La Raza and the U.S. Department of Education.

Brown describes the forum and initiative as a “convergence” of elements: Money to fund it was available from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation for Education; Excelencia’s research showed that the progress in Latino college completion was moving too slowly and needed a push to propel it forward; and President Barack Obama set a goal for the United States to become the top country in the world for college-degree attainment by 2020.

“What Excelencia in Education is doing is saying, ‘We’re at a point in this country where [in order] to meet [Obama’s] college-completion goal, we have to focus on Latino students,’” says Brown. “The growth of the Latino community and this national goal converge.”

Changing Perspectives

Those that have signaled their intention to sign on will bring with them plenty of research and expertise about the barriers Latinos face and best practices for improving access and outcomes. One of them, the 17-year-old D.C.-based Hispanic College Fund, has experience providing an array of services to motivate Hispanic high school students and position them for college as well as steer those in college to professional careers.

The perception that college is unaffordable is the biggest barrier, says George Cushman, vice president of programs for HCF, which has hosted college information events in Arizona, Maryland, New Mexico, Texas and Virginia this year in collaboration with local partners.

“What we see with the students is that because they see that college is unaffordable to them they reduce their study time,” Cushman says. “They drop out of high school at a higher rate because they just don’t feel (college is) relevant because they don’t think it’s affordable.”

Cushman says students start to lose interest in college between freshman and sophomore years in high school, when the rate of Hispanic students’ stated intention to attend college drops. That’s why HCF hosts its pre-college program, the Hispanic Youth Institute, for rising high school sophomores to catch them at that critical juncture, says Cushman. “We’re changing that dynamic within those students so they understand you can overcome those obstacles and barriers.”

HCF also seeks out and forges community partners, such as Ashoka’s Youth Venture, a global community of young change makers, and The Posse Foundation, which cultivates and trains public high school students with leadership potential. HCF is hearing more from students who have only recently discovered they don’t have legal status and is lining up sponsors for a new scholarship fund for undocumented students.

For its part, another group invited to sign on to Excelencia’s new campaign, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, is focused on financing college educations. Founded in 1975, HSF has an annual budget of $37.6 million and provides 140 different scholarship programs, sponsored by corporations like Coca-Cola.

However, a key part of its mission is demystifying the college process for parents who have little or no frame of reference. The San Francisco-based HSF hosts bilingual town hall meetings in partnership with local school districts. It also hosts a daylong program called Steps for Success that teaches middle and high school parents about preparing their children for college.

“A lot of work we do is very closely tied with our vision, which is to put a college degree in every Latino household,” says Dr. Alejandra Rincón, HSF vice president of programs.

In April, HSF launched an Ad Council campaign with radio and television advertisements in Spanish and English that has a grassroots component. Your Words Today  (yourwordstoday.org) encourages parents to get more involved in their children’s education.

“We understand it’s hard for them because they haven’t walked that road, but we want to show them the steps on how to get to college,” says Rincón. “The PSAs invite the parents either to the website or to an 800 number where they can order a DVD that has basic information on it on what’s college, how to prepare and how to pay for college.”

Rincón says HSF was of the same mind as Excelencia when it used a separate URL for the campaign rather than the organization’s in the hopes of bringing Latino organizations together.

“We launched the campaign with that aim to get a lot more partners and to really make this more a national issue,” she says. “It’s not that we don’t share the mission; sometimes we just don’t do it.”

A United Front

Excelencia, HCF and HSF leaders agree the time is ripe for a change in strategy for improving Latino student success. For one, a number of organizations focused on Hispanic students rely on sponsors, and, in this challenging economic climate, there is competition for dollars. It’s more efficient to work together, the leaders say, but to date there have been gaps in collaboration and unity.

“There is room for improvement in that area,” Cushman says. “We’re not trying to fight over a slice of the pie. What we’re trying to do is make a bigger pie. When we come together we can make a bigger pie. There is a culture with the nonprofit world that has to shift in order for us to do that.”

Brown agrees and sees Ensuring America’s Future by Increasing Latino College Completion as a crucial step forward.

“We’re beginning, and every day we’re getting better at the mechanics of actually working together,” she says. “To do that now and to continue to build on that on some level is an act of faith. We have to trust each other that we’re not going to straight up compete.”

For example, Brown says Excelencia was offered resources to establish a scholarship fund but turned it down because other organizations already do that and Excelencia’s leadership felt the organization’s purpose of data analysis and strategic planning should not be muddied.

The budget for this new initiative is not available, but the Gates Foundation reports that it awarded Excelencia $600,000 last year to work on accelerating Latino college completion. The Lumina Foundation awarded the group a $585,000 grant in 2008 and is reviewing a $400,000 request to advance policy and engagement strategies to accelerate Latino college completion.

The progress of Excelencia’s initiative will be tracked every six months with a benchmarking guide that will provide a public baseline and framework. The policy road map will spell out what the participating organizations do and how effective they’ve been. As more collaborative solutions are sought and tested, the results will be included in subsequent benchmarking guides.

“The other thing that is so critical right now is that we do work, communicate and act in optimism,” Brown says. “Yes, we have challenges. Some of these educational challenges seem on the worst of days to be entrenched, but it’s absolutely in our hands to change the course of this. The reason for my optimism is the energy and the life force of young Latinos.” 

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