Last year, more than 2 million Hispanic young adults were enrolled in college, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, reaching a record 16.5 percent share of all college enrollments. And it’s not simply because the United States is home to more Hispanic students—although it is. It’s not simply because President Barack Obama has created new opportunities for poor and middle-class students to pay for college—although he certainly has done that too.
It’s also thanks to the hard work of NEA educators at all levels, said NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen, who serves on the White House Commission on Hispanic Education. “Educators, teachers, education support professionals are working like crazy to build bridges between schools and homes,” she said. “When you see something good like this happening, it’s not an accident. It’s planned. We have put at the top of our agenda to close the achievement gaps.”
Creating opportunities for all students to attend college, if they choose, starts early—really early. In small-town Crete, Nebraska, for example a gateway town for Central and South Americans working in the Midwest’s meat-packing industry, fully certified school district teachers keep more than 150 pre-kindergartners busily hopping between interactive learning centers and pre-literacy centers.
“(Early education) isn’t just a good remedy for English Language Learners. It’s not just a good remedy for Hispanic students. It’s not just a good remedy for low-SES (socioeconomic status) students. It’s a good investment for all children,” writes Ellen Frede, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, in ETS Policy Notes.
Creating college-bound students continues in elementary school, in places like Reading, Pennsylvania, where Gladys Méndez, the parent coordinator at Thirteenth and Green Elementary School, delivers resources to needy families. Her work can be as simple as handing out a warm winter coat or as ambitious as hosting a bilingual night meeting, attended by nearly 100 parents, to discuss the school’s improvement plan. “Once you get the parents involved, the students actually do succeed,” Méndez said.
And, of course, these efforts continue in middle and high school. Even in community colleges, programs like the Puente Program at California’s Rio Hondo College help Hispanic students to transfer to universities. Earlier this year, Rio Hondo professor Mary Ann Pacheco won NEA’s César Chávez Acción y Compromiso Human and Civil Rights Award for a lifetime of advocacy.
“She taught me that I belong here in college. That I have just as much as right as anybody else does to be here,” said Monique Lopez, a Puente Program student and mother of three.
Studies have shown that the problem of Hispanic college attendance has never been a problem of will. A survey by the Pew Hispanic Center in 2010 found that 89 percent of Hispanic students said they knew college was important to be successful in life, just 48 percent said they actually saw that for themselves. The biggest obstacle was money.
College is expensive—and the price tag still puts it out of reach of many students, Hispanic and otherwise. That’s why it’s critically important for states and the federal government to invest in public higher education. At the state levels, budget cuts have forced tuition hikes. At the federal level, President Obama has made great strides in broadening the reach of Pell Grants, work-study programs, and direct access student loans. “President Obama has put his money where his mouth is to make sure minority students have the ability to go college,” Eskelsen noted.