Early College Planning Essential for Latino Student Success, Experts Say

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

ARLINGTON, Va. – In order to ensure better college access and success for Latino students from low-income backgrounds, institutions should help them put together college plans in the eighth grade and help them navigate the complex array of family dynamics and social forces in their lives.

That was one of the take-home points that University of Maryland higher education professor Alberto Cabrera offered up Thursday while presenting at a research conference titled Building Better Students: Preparation for Life After High School. The Educational Testing Service, the College Board, and the American Educational Research Association sponsored the conference. 

“The main message that we want to convey to you is that success in college and beyond is seeded in the eighth grade, if not earlier,” Cabrera, a professor at the University of Maryland at College Park, told the conferees.

“Intervention strategies for retention start too late and don’t address problems that can be traced back to eighth grade,” Cabrera said, citing statistics from a study he conducted that found that, out of 1,000 eighth grade Latino youths from a lower socioeconomic status, 714 left high school unqualified for college, 134 were minimally qualified and only 151 were fully qualified. And that was despite the fact that 80 percent of them had intentions to go to college back when they were in the eighth grade.

“So the first thing that begs to be answered is: What happened?” Cabrera said.

That question was largely answered later Thursday at the Latino Youth Forum 2010 at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. There, a vivid example of the need for the kind of planning that Cabrera prescribed unfolded when forum moderator and noted journalist Ray Suarez asked the two dozen or so high school students in the studio audience how many would be the first in their family to graduate from high school or college. The vast majority of the youths’ hands went up.

Many of the youths spoke of friends and relatives who dropped out of high school for reasons that ranged from the need to work to help their families make ends meet to falling victim to self-doubt bred by stereotypes that cast Latino youth as academically deficient or prone to crime or unwed pregnancy.

Erika Viramontes, a D.C.-based education consultant and former guidance counselor and charter school teacher in Los Angeles, said the fact that so many of the youths in the audience didn’t have high school or college graduates in their families shows why the kind of planning recommended by Cabrera, the higher education professor, is needed.

“It’s very important to have a pathway for them,” Viramontes said. “A lot of students lack structure at home so they look for structure at school, and so definitely putting in place study habits, organizational habits, and goal-setting so they can see a future for themselves is important.

“Adolescents think that a year is eternity,” Viramontes continued. “To envision four years of high school or five years after high school graduation is nearly impossible and definitely a struggle.”

Among other things, Viramontes said, Latino youths who will be first-generation high school and college graduates need help in learning more about financial aid to gain a more realistic sense of the cost of college. They also need more information about the connections between the necessity of a college education in order to fulfill their career aspirations. And, if the family is not on board, college is virtually out of the question.

“When you talk about first-generation college students, it’s amazing the support and sometimes the roadblock that your family could be,” Viramontes said. “If they’re not on board, even if you could go to college and have the money to go … in Latino culture, the family needs to be on board.”

Such were some of the dynamics that Cabrera alluded to in his talk at the Building Better Students conference, a three-day event held in Arlington, Va. The event drew about 125 participants from various fields of education, from college administrators and college access specialists to testing company executives and high school principals.

The conference was meant to provide information and insight to help guide the momentum being built for America’s growing college access movement.

The conference featured a variety of speakers, from a behavioral psychologist who spoke of the often contradictory information regarding the validity of the SAT as a predictor of college success to a policy analyst who predicted that the movement to create common standards for K-12 education could further bog down teachers and administrators who are already under tremendous scrutiny and pressure to raise lackluster proficiency rates among students.

Elena Silva, the policy analyst at Education Sector, a D.C.-based education policy group, brought skepticism to some of the successes that have been claimed in turning around low-performing schools.

Of the quick turnarounds, she said, the deeper question is: Can it be sustained? She said she’s been frustrated by the fact that a lot of policies are created around showing quick change, ostensibly so that politicians can look good. “That’s where policy is political,” Silva said.

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