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Mass. colleges lead the way in attracting Latino students

Herinell Linares, a student at Northern Essex Community College.

The first adjective one might use to describe Amherst College is “bucolic,’’ or maybe “prestigious.’’ Chances are “diverse’’ doesn’t even crack the top 25. But a decade ago, the school’s “top echelons made an outright decision that it would no longer be a bastion of the white, wealthy elite,’’ says Ilan Stavans, a professor of Latin American and Latino Culture there who has mentored many Latino students. Amherst has since doubled its Latino enrollment from about 6 percent to 12. In 2010, praising its commitment, Hispanic Magazine named it the number five school in the country for Latinos.

Amherst’s results are the envy of many colleges, and not just for ideological reasons. Recruiting minorities can be a survival strategy for small schools, especially those in the Northeast, which are staring down a demographic barrel: The region’s teenage population is shrinking. Most colleges depend on tuition for revenue, so keeping enrollment steady is paramount. But for the next few years, there will be an unusually shallow pool of potential students. To maintain their numbers, schools will have to recruit high-schoolers who might not otherwise attend college - and that will mean, among other things, reaching out to minority and low-income groups.

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While Amherst, with its $1.6 billion endowment, has plenty of money to devote to recruitment and scholarships, there are other ways to boost minority enrollment, and Massachusetts is ahead of the curve. The Commonwealth is one of the top 15 states enrolling Latinos, and according to a national report released in April, it saw one of the largest jumps in degrees conferred to Latinos over a three-academic-year period, from 2005-06 to 2007-08. The report from Excelencia, a group that studies trends in higher education that affect Latinos, lists a number of strategies that are proven to work, and the local colleges that have such programs in place are getting results - fast.

The federal government would like to see statistics like Amherst’s replicated nationwide. President Obama is keen to have the country double its number of college graduates by 2020 so it can regain its worldwide top ranking for college degree attainment. To make that happen, Latinos alone will need to earn 5.5 million degrees by 2020, according to the April Excelencia report. “It’s a very big priority,’’ says Eduardo Ochoa, the government’s assistant secretary for postsecondary education. “Given the demographic shifts that are baked into our population, we are going to have to substantially increase the numbers.’’ All of which suggests other schools should be following Amherst’s lead.

But the elite school enjoys advantages that make it hard for other colleges to emulate its effort to recruit Latinos. Amherst’s students arrive academically well prepared, increasing chances they will graduate. Amherst’s healthy endowment means it can afford to give students plenty of financial aid - the average award is $41,150 and includes no loans - saving students the need to take jobs that might detract from their studies. During recruitment season, the school flies almost 200 kids from around the country to campus for “diversity open houses.’’ Once students are enrolled, it buys them two round-trip plane tickets apiece every year. That can make a big difference to Latino students from the Southwest, says admissions director Tom Parker, because “these may be kids who have never been to Massachusetts - maybe kids who have never even been in an airport.’’

That is a luxury very few schools can afford. The challenge for most colleges, and thus for the country, is how to achieve results like Amherst’s without its resources.

In 2006, Wheelock College in Boston “literally had one Latino student in the entering class,’’ said Adrian Haugabrook, who oversees student success and diversity initiatives there. Numbers overall weren’t much better: There were 27 Latinos, about 5 percent of the student body of 560. Today, about 15 percent of Wheelock’s students are Latino.

How did Wheelock do it? Haugabrook launches into a long list of new programs, including community outreach that begins as early as third grade. One weekend mentoring program run by Wheelock students, the Mattahunt Boys Academy, “was so successful that we created Mattahunt Girls Academy as well,’’ he says. Even better: through a combination of federal grants and shuffled resources, the school has managed to dramatically change its profile without dipping deeply into its bank account.

Public schools are making a point of targeting Latinos, too. At the state’s 19 community colleges, recruiting is not much of a problem: anyone can enroll, and many schools are bursting at the seams. Some have enormous local Latino populations from which to draw students. Northern Essex Community College, for instance, has two of its three campuses in Lawrence, where 73.8 percent of the population identifies as Latino; almost a third of the school’s students are Latino, too - a major increase from five years ago.

But keeping those students in school is harder than luring them in. Latino students graduate from Northern Essex at a lower rate than the college student population at large. Still, with the help of a federal grant for schools with 25 percent or more Latino students, the college has been trying creative approaches to close the gap - from establishing a Latino-only student support group to bringing in the Dominican writer Junot Díaz, fresh off his Pulitzer Prize, for a creative writing workshop.

Among the current class of Northern Essex graduates are inspiring stories, like that of Herinell Linares, who came to the United States at 17 speaking no English. He managed to learn the language and discover an aptitude for math - all while working full time - by seeking out a new center on campus that provides intense tutoring. Five years later, he is graduating and going on to the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where he will study electrical engineering.

But success like Linares’s does not come easily. Even at places like Amherst, Latino students face challenges that can not necessarily be overcome by policies, programs, or large infusions of cash. For one, they are not a monolithic group, so no single program works for all of them: They hail from different economic classes, locations, and ethnic backgrounds. Another problem: Many are wary of seeking help from their teachers because they have been raised to keep authority figures at a respectful distance. “You have to work sometimes for years to break that,’’ says Amherst’s Stavans.

Undocumented Latino students bear yet another burden, Stavans adds, “and that is a sense of secrecy and vulnerability. They’re essentially closeted.’’

The DREAM Act - the national bill that would give illegal aliens temporary-resident status if they complete at least two years at a four-year college - might alleviate that feeling and give undocumented students hope that they can reap a major benefit of higher education: a good job after graduation. But so far the rhetoric around the bill may have made some students feel wary of college.

And another political development on the horizon could become an obstacle. The Supreme Court will hear a landmark case on affirmative action in college admissions this fall, and - unlike the last time it considered the policy - it has five justices likely to give a thumbs-down.

“If they say you can not use race in any circumstances whatsoever,’’ says Parker, “there’s no doubt it will have an effect.’’ At that point, even wealthy Amherst may have a problem.

Mary Carmichael is a Globe reporter. She can be reached at mary.carmichael @globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.
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