Feed the Source
Hispanics represent the youngest, fastest-growing population group in the United States, but they still lag significantly in degree completion. In 2004, of those individuals 25 years or older, only 58.4 percent of Hispanics graduated from high school versus 85.8 percent for whites, and 12.1 percent of Hispanics had completed a college education compared with 28.2 percent for whites (Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2006, U.S. Census Bureau). In this interview, Aetna Chief Diversity Officer Raymond Arroyo discusses Hispanic higher education progress with Antonio Flores, president and chief executive officer of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.
Arroyo: What is the single biggest obstacle facing Hispanic higher education today?
Flores: When you consider our country’s demographic trends and projections, if we don’t dramatically reverse years of neglect in educating Hispanics, we will be in trouble as a nation. A growing proportion of the U.S. labor force is represented by Hispanics. That is a well-accepted fact by demographers, politicians, and corporate leaders. Yet, the educational investments are not forthcoming to provide resources to schools and teachers to prepare students for long-term success. We need a policy breakthrough that will translate into those necessary investments because, from a global standpoint, we can’t afford to fail in this area. Ultimately, it’s not about our nation’s Hispanic community getting further behind, but about our nation falling behind.
Arroyo: What is the first step toward increasing student success?
Flores: The first step is to ensure that students make it through K-12. About half of Latinos in this country never graduate from high school. So one of the best ways higher education institutions can make sure they have a pool of Hispanic students and employees from which to recruit is to invest in this human capital where it originates. That could mean partnering with existing K-12 programs to foster student success and teacher excellence, especially in underserved and under-resourced schools.
Another key step is providing Hispanic students and parents with early awareness of educational opportunities available beyond high school and how to access those opportunities. That means providing more guidance about how students can position themselves while in high school to succeed in getting accepted into college and pursuing a career of their choice. That guidance may include helping students and parents understand what choices are best in terms of coursework to pursue.
Arroyo: What poses the biggest challenge to students once they enroll?
Flores: One cultural difference distinguishes many Hispanics in America. Whereas Caucasian parents are often characterized as eager to have children become self-sufficient and move out of the house and even across the country to attend the school of their choice, many Latino parents and children have a harder time with that geographic distance and separation. And it isn’t only the parents. Hispanic students often have a difficult time dealing with family separation. Many of those who do move away to attend college can be prone to leave or transfer closer to home, so retention becomes an issue.
Arroyo: Is there a good solution to ensure degree completion?
Flores: As we look at the higher education landscape, we can see peaks and valleys in terms of available student populations from which to recruit based on where institutions are located geographically. It would make sense for those institutions that have the greatest decline in student enrollments to create alliances and partnerships with those that have the opposite problem. Some institutions—including many Hispanic-Serving Institutions—are bursting at the seams. Capacity issues could be addressed to some extent through creative reciprocity agreements. For instance, institutions that are heavily endowed but are in areas with shrinking pools of prospective students might create extension campuses in regions where over-capacity is an issue or form transfer agreements with those that have greater enrollment demands.
Arroyo: As institutions of higher education seek to increase faculty diversity, what is the opportunity outlook for Hispanics?
Flores: Encouraging Hispanic students not only to graduate from high school or complete an associate’s degree, but also to continue through the education cycle to become the top-notch scientists, professors, and professional leaders we need to lead this nation is an even bigger issue. The talent pipeline becomes drier as you move higher. Currently in the United States only about 3 percent of new doctorate degree recipients annually are Hispanic, so there is a definite and huge gap between demand and supply. And this greater demand for Hispanic faculty exists in conjunction with a growing demand for top talent within the business community, which is competing with higher education for Hispanic talent. So while the career prospects for Hispanics are good, for higher education it’s a critical pipeline issue. That’s why institution leaders—and our nation’s leaders—must be active in helping to feed this shortage on the front end.
Arroyo: What emphasis should language skills play in faculty hiring?
Flores: Internally, some Hispanic-Serving Institutions have begun to discuss whether language should be integrated into their curriculum to the point of requiring that graduates be proficient in Spanish. That would allow their students to really stand out when they graduate, fully bilingual, with a degree in hand. And the reality of the marketplace is that language provides an edge to any professional seeking a job. This is an issue of language in general, not only Spanish. Wouldn’t it benefit a student today to learn Chinese?
As the U.S. population grows more ethnically diverse, I believe the need for language skills will continue to increase. In certain employment sectors such as health care and K-12 education, a high value is already placed on bilingual and bicultural talents because those proficiencies are needed to communicate with individuals within local communities. One question for higher education as an employer is to what extent institutions value hiring bilingual and bicultural candidates as a way to recruit and retain student populations that may be underserved. Are institutions willing to pay more for those skills and to provide incentives to faculty and staff for becoming bilingual or multilingual? This becomes a matter of recognizing the value of language as a skill set and acknowledging its importance in a global society and economy.
Founded in 1986, the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (www.hacu.net) represents more than 450 colleges and universities committed to Hispanic higher education success in the United States (including Puerto Rico), Latin America, and Spain. HACU has 200 member Hispanic-Serving Institutions located in 14 U.S. states and Puerto Rico. To be considered an HSI, Hispanic enrollment at a college or university must be at least 25 percent of total student enrollment.