The somewhat awkward positioning of Hispanic Heritage Month, wedged halfway between the months of September and October, could well describe the experience of the Latino student I once was and have since observed over four decades in higher education. Many of us have one foot in the academic world and the other foot in the world we came from, straddling a fault line that can feel like a personal imbalance.
“I don’t see myself in college,” a young man explained to me as we stood together on the campus of UCLA in 2011 when I ran the US Hispanic College Fund. The student was enrolled in a summer bridge program to prepare for college, but he couldn’t picture himself on a college campus. My experience told me that unless he developed a college-going identity, his chance of post-secondary success was slim.
Latino students aren’t the only ones, of course, who struggle with the question of whether they belong on a college campus. Low-income and first-generation students of every shade and cultural origin ponder this too. But the condition of Latino students in Massachusetts should command urgent attention. Sixty-one percent of Latino undergraduates attend the state’s taxpayer-supported public colleges and universities. They represent a significant growth sector in higher education and the state at large. A Boston Foundation report released earlier this year showed that Latinos account for 92 percent of Boston’s population growth since 1980, a surge that has coincided with the economic boom of the last few decades. The same is true in cities like Lawrence, Lynn, Chelsea, Holyoke, and Springfield, where Latinos make up between one-third (Lynn) and three-quarters (Lawrence) of the urban population.
So it is safe to say that Latinos play an increasingly important role in the economic lifeblood of our state — as parents, consumers, business owners, and entrepreneurs. Against the backdrop of growing influence, however, I see worrisome signs that our Latino youth are still not making academic strides that will lead to advancement. In 2014, 55 percent of Latino students in Massachusetts were deemed unprepared for college and were enrolled in a remedial course in their first term at a public college or university, compared with 28 percent of white students. Less than half of Latino students (44 percent) earned a degree or certificate within six years of enrollment, compared with 69 percent of whites. As a labor economist who studies the economic contributions of Latinos in the United States, I know that these gaps can spread like disease, infecting the state’s ability to attract new jobs and industry.
What then is the treatment for this persistent malady in higher education? On the broad policy front, we are rebuilding our remediation courses from the ground up to make sure that Latino (and other) students don’t languish in pre-college classes they pay for but receive no credit for. With the majority of Latino undergraduates clustered at community colleges, we have invested in creating new academic infrastructure: well-defined transfer pathways that provide on-ramps to bachelor’s degrees at state universities and UMass campuses. We are slowly diversifying teacher education programs, which will give Latino students greater access to educators who look like them. And in three local school districts with sizable Latino populations, we have launched programs targeting young males of color who, like the young man I met at UCLA, don’t see themselves as “college material.” In Springfield, more than 90 percent of the male students taking part in the 100 Males to College program have enrolled in college. For many, this step is less about individual achievement and more about paving the way for other family members to attend college.
“Being the first to go to university gives me the chance to pass it on to my sisters, because none of them know about going to college,” a proud member of the 100 Males cohort told us. “I’m going to make a difference for my family.” He will do that, and more, if he succeeds. Indeed, this young man’s achievement will yield economic dividends for his — and our — Commonwealth.Carlos E. Santiago is commissioner of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education.