Houston Chronicle web logo

Hispanics travel rough road to higher education---Ethnic group is the fastest growing, but the least likely to enroll in college

by JEANNIE KEVER
Houston Chronicle
April 5, 2009

Programs That Help

Education officials say too few Hispanic students enroll in college and even fewer eventually earn a degree. Dozens of programs, public and private, are trying to change that. Here's a look at three:

Genesys Works

What it is: Nonprofit organization that provides job training and placement as well as hands-on help in applying to college and for financial aid and scholarships.

Whom it serves: At-risk high school students - not just Hispanics - from the Houston, Spring Branch and Aldine school districts.

How it works: Students receive training in information technology, engineering drafting, and accounting and finance, then work 20 hours per week during their senior year with a local corporation, earning money and job experience. They also are required to take the SAT or ACT at least twice and apply to five four-year colleges. "We don't force them to go to college. We force them to have options," founder Rafael Alvarez says.

Impact: All of Genesys' 2008 high school graduates enrolled in college; 60 percent are at a four-year school.

Grantham Academy

What it is: Aldine Independent School District middle school engineering magnet program.

Whom it serves: Seventh- and eighth-graders. Student body is 81 percent Hispanic; 72 percent are low-income.

How it works: Students choose between chemical, biomedical, mechanical and civil engineering. The school also offers a college academy, meeting weekly to demystify the process of applying for college, finding financial aid and other issues. Students also have taken field trips to area campuses.

Impact: School rated "recognized" by Texas Education Agency. Principal Ben Ibarra said the district hasn't yet tracked whether Grantham graduates are more likely to attend college, "but we are looking to build a culture of college readiness."

Intellectual Entrepreneurship, Pre-Graduate School Internship

What it is: Undergraduate program at the University of Texas at Austin, started in 2003 to pair undergraduates with graduate students to explore a field.

Whom it serves: About 200 students a semester, more than half are minority or first-generation college students.

How it works: Students may attend graduate classes, collaborate on research projects and work directly with faculty, all for academic credit. The goal is to demystify graduate school and other aspects of the academic world, but founder Rick Cherwitz said it also helps students figure out what field matches their passion.

Impact: Honored last month by Excelencia in Education for accelerating the success of Latino students. No research data available yet; Cherwitz says anecdotal evidence suggests students involved in the program are more likely to stay in school and graduate on time.

The future of Texas is sitting in room 318 at Austin High School, and right now, it could go either way.

Students in the after-school program -- Hispanic and from low-income families, the group least likely to enroll in college -- are optimistic.

But who knows?

"I hope to go," says Neri Gamez, 17, a high school junior who dreams of being a doctor.

Gamez has an advantage: She is in a program run by the Center for Mexican-American Studies at the University of Houston, designed to help Hispanic students enter college and, once there, earn a degree. Academic Achievers is among dozens of programs that address one of the state's most intractable education problems.

But Hispanics, the state's fastest-growing ethnic group, have fallen behind in some key areas, and efforts to change that remain piecemeal:

  • Statewide, 68 percent of Hispanics graduate from high school within four years, 10 points below the overall rate.
  • Just 42.5 percent of Hispanics who graduated from high school in 2007 enrolled in college or a technical training program the following fall, compared with 45.3 percent of black students and 57.5 percent of white students.
  • Texas is "well below target" in raising the number of Hispanics in college, according to a 2008 report by the Higher Education Coordinating Board. Enrollment of both white and black students was "somewhat above target."

And there are no consequences for schools that don't raise Hispanic enrollment.

"The good news is, there's a state goal," said Paul Ruiz, co-founder and senior advisor to the Education Trust, a national group that advocates for at-risk students. "The bad news is, the institutions don't get it. They set goals for Latino kids at about half the rate the state says we need."

The issue is complicated by the rapid growth of the Hispanic population; about 36 percent of the Texas population is Hispanic.

"We've made progress," said Raymund Paredes, higher education commissioner for Texas. "Our challenge is, we started so far behind, and the Latino population is growing so fast."

Unless the numbers change, the state will be unable to field a well-educated work force. "The Hispanic community is key to the economic future of Texas," Paredes said.

Enrollment edging up

The state plan, known as Closing the Gaps, began in 2000 with the goal of increasing college enrollment to 5.7 percent of the population by 2015. That would raise college-going rates to the national average.

Over the past eight years, overall enrollment has edged up to 5.3 percent from 5 percent. For Hispanics, it's up to 3.9 percent from 3.7 percent.

More than 1.2 million Texans enrolled in a two- or four-year college or technical school last fall; state goals call for that to reach 1.6 million by 2015. The Coordinating Board's own estimates suggest it will fall short by 300,000 students.

Gamez, a student at Austin High School, said she understands why so many of her peers don't go on to college. "They may have to work," she said. "And once they get a taste of the money, they may decide to skip college."

Often, no one in their family has attended college, so they don't know the ropes.

Gamez lives with her mother and 19-year-old brother, both of whom work at a tire store. Her father graduated from college in Mexico and owned a tire shop in Houston but now is in prison, she said. "He didn't really get to apply his skills."

She intends to be different.

Patchwork efforts

Paredes and other higher education officials point to the successes.

Hispanic enrollment has grown faster than that of other racial or ethnic groups, and is up 50 percent over the past five years. Two-thirds of the growth was at community or technical colleges, rather than a four-year school.

But the population has grown almost as quickly, wiping out much of the gains.

Paredes notes that improving college-going rates has to start in high school or even sooner, and he has pushed for more stringent high school graduation requirements to better prepare students for college. Those took effect in 2008.

The state has established counseling centers in 250 Texas middle and high schools to improve college counseling. Paredes also has argued, with mixed success, for more financial aid.

"Most Latino students come from poor families, and they'll need aid to go to college," he said.

Success is relative.

The University of Texas system touts its diversity, noting that in 2008, Hispanic enrollment was about equal to that of white students, and several campuses have been designated as among the nation's top in awarding degrees to Hispanics. But most Hispanic enrollment is concentrated at the system's border schools, including UT-Pan American (86 percent), UT-Brownsville (91 percent) and UT-El Paso (75 percent).

At UT-Austin, 16 percent of students are Hispanic; at UT-Dallas, it's 9 percent.

The flagship campus could do better, Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa acknowledged. "It does require a real outreach effort," he said. "It doesn't happen automatically."

Which is precisely Ruiz's point.

Ruiz, who lives in San Antonio, suggests the state should set goals for each institution, with top administrators held accountable for meeting them.

Janet Beinke, director of planning at the coordinating board, said it's not so easy to impose mandates. "What are you going to do? Take the money away?" she asked. "You have to use carrots."

But Ruiz disagrees.

"To close the Hispanic gap, institutions have to do things dramatically differently," he said.

Most rely upon a patchwork of efforts.

The University of Houston, for example, sends recruiters to local high schools and college fairs, said Jeff Fuller, director of student recruitment. Its major outreach comes through the Center for Mexican-American Studies, which began its first program at Jackson Middle School more than 20 years ago.

Progress has been slow.

Multiple stumbling blocks

About 20 percent of UH students are Hispanic, up only slightly over the last five years. (About 40 percent of Harris County residents are Hispanic.) But that was still enough to earn a place among the top 20 colleges and universities awarding degrees to Hispanic students, according to The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education magazine.

The numbers are slightly higher at the University of Houston-Downtown, which has its own outreach programs. About 36 percent of students there are Hispanic.

Rebeca Trevino, who manages the Center for Mexican-American Studies' Academic Achievers program, said several factors hold Hispanic students back, including money and a lack of role models.

Language, high school preparation and immigration issues all can be stumbling blocks, as well.
"Most of our students are the first in their family to go to college," Trevino said. "They need people they can relate to."

A new tradition

Irene Avellaneda, 18, found that in her brother, Hector.

But when Hector Avella­neda, now 22, walked onto the Texas A&M campus in 2004, he had to forge his own path.

The eldest of three children, he was the first in his family to finish high school. College was foreign territory.

"The first semester and first year were kind of rough," he said.

His GPA dipped to 2.75 that first semester -- not terrible, but below the 3.0 his scholarships required -- and he was placed on probation.

But he turned that around and will graduate in May, just as Irene finishes her first year at UH-Downtown.

"Hector was a big inspiration," his sister said. "The younger siblings are always going to look up to the older."

That now goes double for their youngest sibling, 14-year-old Moses.

Latino students determined to beat college odds

Eva Briones

Eva Briones was thinking about college, but it all seemed so mysterious. Her brother dropped out of high school. Her parents never went to college.

"Watching my brother work at minimum-wage jobs, my mom (doing the same), I didn't want to do that," she said.

Briones, 21, joined the Academic Achievers program as a freshman at Austin High School, where mentors showed students how to apply to college and for financial aid.

She's now a sophomore at the University of Houston, majoring in psychology with a 3.5 grade-point average. But many of her friends never made it to college.

"They just work," she said. "Their families, they focus on you getting out and getting a job, helping out the family."

Joel German

Joel German figured he'd do what the people around him did.

"I didn't have no plans to go to college," he said. "I'd just finish high school and work."

A program run by the Center for Mexican-American Studies at the University of Houston encouraged him to give college a try.

That first day was a shock. "My first class, my first day, had 200 students," he said. "One professor with 200 students."

But he stuck it out and is now a sophomore.

He's also become a role model for his three younger siblings. "Because I'm the oldest brother," he said, "I'm kind of responsible for getting them to go to college."

Felipe Benitez

Felipe Benitez has faith that he can be different.

"I'm the one that's going to break the chain in my family," he said.

At 17, Benitez is a junior at Austin High School, and he's got help in beating the odds. He enrolled in a program run by the Center for Mexican-American Studies at the University of Houston to encourage more Hispanics to enroll in college. This summer, he'll start at Genesys Works, a nonprofit organization that provides job training and placement for high school students.

In fall 2010, he predicts, he will be on a college campus. Four years later, he expects to graduate.

If so, he'll be beating the odds: His parents never attended college.

Two of his older siblings enrolled but dropped out. Another dropped out of high school.

Benitez said that family history will change with him. "My children will go. I'll be the one that tells them about college, about getting a scholarship."

jeannie.kever@chron.com