Removing Barriers to Latino College Success

“Do you know what semillas means? Or crecer?” asks Mimi Blaber, a senior director in LaGuardia Community College’s (LCC) adult and continuing education department.

In Spanish, semillas means seeds and crecer to grow, and both words are apt for the supportive work done at LCC, a City University of New York campus where more than 50 percent of students are immigrants from more than 100 countries. Recently, the nonprofit Excelencia in Education honored Blaber and her colleagues for their efforts to support students as they transition from popular non-credit adult programs (like GED classes) to degree-granting programs, a necessary but difficult part of the journey to middle-class life in America.

“They come here because they’re hoping to have a better life and often they see education as the door to a better life,” said David Housel, an assistant director who coordinates the support of social workers for students. “They know you need a degree or a certificate to get a job. They understand that. Especially in New York, those entry-level manufacturing jobs are gone. But sometimes they need support to fulfill those motivations.”

Even as Latino student college enrollment has reached all-time highs, they still lag far behind their peers in college completion rates.  Specifically, while they made up 16 percent of America’s college students in 2011 (the largest percentage ever), they accounted for 8 percent of those earning a bachelor’s degree, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Overall, just 21 percent of the nation’s Hispanics hold a two-year degree or higher, compared to 30 percent of African-Americans and 44 percent of Whites, according to Excelencia in Education.

Obviously, they face obstacles to college completion, especially among first-generation college students and immigrants: “They have cultural barriers. They have language barriers,” says Blaber. “They have financial barriers,” Housel adds. “Most of our folks are working full-time, coming here full-time, and they also have family responsibilities.”

To be successful — to find an appropriate major, earn a degree, get a job, and contribute to their families and local economies — they need support. Fortunately, LCC has found a way to provide it.  In 2009, led by Blaber and Housel, both NEA Higher Ed members, LCC received a SEMILLAS grant from Excelencia in Education. (The other meaning of SEMILLAS? It’s an Excelencia program acronym that stands for “Seeding Educational Models that Impact and Leverage Latino Academic Success.”) They used the money to develop a program called Connecting Resources to Enhance College Excellence and Retention, or CRECER.

The program has created partnerships across the college campus, connecting the dots between adult education, different degree-granting academic departments, and the student registrar’s office. First, the program makes sure that targeted adult education students can get into the regular college, which means navigating a maze of paperwork, making testing appointments, visiting the right offices, applying for student loans and grants, and more. “Nothing about the (admissions) process is intuitive,” says Housel.

Then, once the CRECER students are enrolled, it means making sure they have the support they need to actually graduate. To that end, the program uses a cadre of graduate students seeking master’s degrees in social work who provide individualized support to students. Those social-work interns, or “case workers,” might hear about problems ranging from financial aid snags to domestic-abuse complaints, and they’ll provide referrals ranging for counseling and other services both on campus and off. When students miss classes or even fail a quiz, the case workers are quickly alerted.

Of the 120 students served in CRECER in 2009, all 120 moved into degree-granting programs (a 100 percent conversion rate) and 78 percent persisted into their second-year of the degree program. Overall, 25 percent of the freshman class now comes from the adult and continuing education program, a very significant percentage, said Blaber. “We’re very happy with that number because it really shows how all of our partnerships are having an effect,” she said.

And, beyond the numbers, Blaber and Housel also tell the stories of men and women who have gone on to get degrees, have careers, and make a difference in the lives of their families. “One of the things that’s great about New York City is that we understand that immigrants are contributing to the community — not just culturally, but chiefly economically. Making an investment in immigrants truly pays off.”