Assistant Professor, Department of Leadership Studies
University of San Francisco
Martin De Mucha Flores
Director of Early Academic Outreach Program, UC Berkeley
Doctoral Student, University of San Francisco
(Special thanks to Martin for contributing this article)
Much of our discussion in higher education upholds a homogeneous perspective of Latina/o student needs and experiences. More needs to be done to recognize the differences that exist for Latina/o student populations across the United States and the varying policy contexts of the states we work in when making decisions about how to best serve these students.
What’s the difference?
Nuñez and colleagues provided a succinct summary of key differences between Latina/o ethnic subpopulations in the US, highlighting distinctions in sociopolitical history. They note the shaping of the immigration experiences of Puerto Ricans (who are born US citizens) and Cubans (who are granted political asylum) which influences educational opportunity afforded to immigrants from these countries who do not face the same challenges as immigrants from other Latin American countries who may not have documentation.
Analysis of 2014 data from the US Census highlight educational attainment differences across Latinas/os. For instance, less than 10 percent of Mexican, Honduran, and Salvadoran populations hold a bachelor’s degree, while 32 percent of Venezuelans and about 20 percent of Argentineans and Colombians have similar levels of degree attainment (see Figure 1). The uneven representation in bachelor’s degree completion is an example of the differences that exist across Latina/o subgroups. Still, much of the research that informs our work at the campus- and state-levels do not fully account for these differing contexts.
Differences are also true when comparing experiences of Latinas/os in different states. Nationally in 2013, over 42 percent of Latinas/os enrolled in higher education at community colleges (compared to 39 percent of non-Latinas/os), more than any other sector. While this may reflect general understandings that highlight the likelihood of Latinas/os to attend community colleges, the map presented in Figure 2 challenges this notion. Higher concentrations of enrollments in four-year colleges by Latinas/os across the Southeast and Rocky Mountain states, as well as sprinklings in the Midwest and Northeast, demonstrate potential contextual differences within these regions that may contribute to the differing enrollment trends.
Figure 2. Concentration of Latina/o college enrollments by institution sector.
Source: Forthcoming manuscript, “Repositioning trends of Latina/o enrollments in community colleges” by D. Zerquera, N. Acevedo-Gil, E. Flores, & P. Maranthal.
The disconnect between national averages and state-by-state comparisons is better explained by numbers—over 15 million Latinas/os live in California alone, a state with a well-developed community college system and large enrollments in their two-year institutions. As this comprises more than a quarter of all Latinas/os in the US, the trends in this state have significant impacts on how data play out at the national level. This example shows that when national data are used to inform decision making, as opposed to data situated within your own state, it has the potential of distorting information. The trends presented in Figure 2 highlight a need for a state-focused perspective during decision making to ensure that funding, policies, and program development appropriately support Latino/a student success in your own state.
What can be done?
To make better decisions, we need better tools and to be better informed.
The Equity Scorecard developed by the Center for Urban Education provides a model for how to structure and use data to illuminate and address educational inequities. However, scorecards need to consider more than just standard demographic groups. For instance, matriculation information could be revised to ask students questions about nationality, in addition to race/ethnicity. This focused approach in paying attention to Latina/o sub-groups can be used in analyses of student outcomes to better understand how Latina/o subgroups are differently served by policies and practices. This can then help inform policy and program evaluation to determine ways of better serving students. Particularly in states and on campuses with large and diverse Latina/o student populations, such as HSIs, policy and programmatic interventions can be developed or revised to address inequities that continue within the Latina/o population.
In addition to better tools we need decision makers to be better informed about the diversity of Latinas/os in their states and on their campuses. Even when there is Latina/o representation within these levels of decision-making, education surrounding the specific needs and experiences of the diverse Latina/o subgroups within the state are essential. Professional development that supports cultural fluency, provided by local community-based organizations such as Edúcate Ya in Portland, OR and Latino studies departments in colleges and universities may enhance the awareness of these needs, which can then translate into action for the benefit of all.
Undoubtedly, there is power in our collective voice in the realm of national politics and decision-making. Further, it is difficult within standard practices to not disaggregate already small numbers of individuals into even smaller groups. However, the need to understand the perspectives of diverse Latina/o subgroups is essential. Without it we risk a grave disservice and silencing of already marginalized experiences. It is important that as we seek best practices in supporting Latina/o students on our campuses, or in developing and implementing policies that may affect thousands and millions of students in our states, that our perspective be conscious of the diversity among us and context-specific experiences.
Dr. Desiree Zerquera is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Leadership Studies at the University of San Francisco. She has worked as a researcher, student affairs practitioner, and higher education administrator. Her research focuses on how inequalities structure the experiences of underrepresented students in accessing and succeeding in higher education.
Martin de Mucha Flores is Director of Early Academic Outreach Program at UC Berkeley and a doctoral student at the University of San Francisco. He brings years of experience in supporting Latina/o pathways to college. His dissertation focuses on the role of activism of Chican@ community college leaders in student success.