HACU Conference Hones in on Latino Graduation, Retention - Higher Education
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HACU Conference Hones in on Latino Graduation, Retention

by Catherine Morris

SAN ANTONIO ― How to improve student graduation and retention is a quandary that preoccupies many a college administrator. For institutions that serve large numbers of underrepresented or minority students, the question is perhaps all the more pressing, given the varied needs of different types of student populations.

At the annual Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) conference, educators and administrators from the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) sought to answer that question using their own institution as a model for others to follow at a panel discussion Sunday. Hispanic students are poised to be one of the fastest growing college-going demographics.

UNC’s Latino student population is growing at a rate of more than 2 percent each year, going from 4 percent of the total student body in 2006 to 18.9 percent in the fall of 2016.

UNC’s Latino student population is growing at a rate of more than 2 percent each year, going from 4 percent of the total student body in 2006 to 18.9 percent in the fall of 2016.

UNC’s Latino student population is growing at a rate of more than 2 percent each year, going from 4 percent of the total student body in 2006 to 18.9 percent in the fall of 2016. The city of Greeley, Colorado, where UNC is located, also is home to a growing Hispanic population, meaning more Hispanic students will be in the K-12 system and eventually going on to college and potentially to UNC itself.

Success at UNC is not merely defined by growing enrollment numbers: it also encompasses retention and graduation rates. For students in Hispanic student-oriented academic programs such as UNC’s Cumbres program and Center for Human Enrichment (CHE) program, the retention and graduation rates are approximately 89 percent, UNC administrators said on Sunday.

Cumbres is a scholarship and support program for aspiring ESL teachers, founded 15 years ago by UNC alumni concerned about the low numbers of Hispanic teachers in local schools. The goal of the program is to produce more teachers who can serve as role models for Hispanic students in local schools and also serve the needs of a growing population of K-12 students for whom English is not their first language.

To participate in the Cumbres program, students must first declare an education major with an endorsement in ESL. They take classes in a cohort model for their first three semesters and are required to live in the same dormitory as freshmen to foster a better sense of community.

UNC’s CHE program is a TRIO program, meaning that it is federally funded, for first-generation students. Each year, 60 to 70 students are selected for the program and receive mentoring and other guidance throughout their time at UNC.

In his eight years as the assistant vice president for enrollment management and student access at UNC, Tobias Guzman said he has seen first-hand how more crucial it is to be culturally responsive to student needs during the process of recruitment.

“It’s no longer just going out to high schools and recruiting students in ways that you did 20 years ago,” he said. “Today, it means going into places that are nontraditional, so it’s not just the high schools, now it’s the Boys and Girls’ Clubs, it’s going to the places where parents hang out.”

Community engagement and community-based education are also keys to the success of programs like Cumbres, said Deborah Romero, UNC’s director of engagement. “We know from nationwide and international research that the sooner students can connect their academic learning to community contexts, to real and meaningful endeavors, that makes a difference,” she said. Research shows that “the impact of community engaged learning on recruitment and retention is significantly higher for underrepresented and minority students,” she added.

For students who do not fall into the Cumbres and CHE categories, UNC also offers the Cesar Chavez Cultural Center, the Latino cultural center on campus. UNC has four free-standing cultural centers in total, for its Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian students.

Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at cmorris@diverseeducation.com.

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