Report: More California Latinos getting high school diplomas, but not college degrees

The Fresno BeeNovember 4, 2013 

More California Latinos are getting high school diplomas and entering college than ever before, but many still end up without a four-year degree, according to a new report from a nonprofit education advocacy group.

The study from the Campaign for College Opportunity unveiled Monday night shows Latinos make up 38% of California's population, but they're last among the state's major ethnic groups when it comes to getting a bachelor's degree.

"We are on track to produce a generation of young people less educated than our older population," the report says. "The principal reason is that one of the largest and fastest-growing segments of our population — native-born and immigrant Latinos — has unacceptably low rates of college completion."

READ THE REPORT: Latinos in Higher Education in California

Of Californians older than 25, about 11% of Hispanics have degrees — up from 8% in 2000. That's a smaller jump compared to increases in Latino high school graduates, which leapt from 19.7% to 25.3% between 2000 and 2011.

More than 47% of Asians, 39% of whites and 23% of blacks have degrees, the report shows.

The numbers are even more stark in the Valley: only 8% of Latinos 25 or older in Fresno County have at least a bachelor's degree, according to 2011 Census Bureau data.

Local education officials say there still are major barriers for Latino youths, like high community college attrition rates and underpreparedness for college classes.

Additionally, many Latino high school students graduate without the credits they need to get into the Valley's largest four-year school, California State University, Fresno.

The college requires its freshman students to have four years of high school English, three years of math and two years of a foreign language, among other things.

But at some local districts — including Fresno Unified, for example — students are only required to take one year of foreign language. They're also allowed to substitute their language class for a year of visual or performing arts, which is tallied as a separate requirement to get into Fresno State.

Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson did not return phone calls Monday.

Fresno Unified spokeswoman Susan Bedi said high school counselors help educate students about CSU requirements so they are prepared to apply.

Some California districts are trying to make the transition from high school to college more fluid.

Michele Siqueiros, executive director of the Campaign for College Opportunity, said Long Beach Unified is working with California State University, Long Beach, to guarantee qualified students admission into the school. Other districts, she said, are making CSU entrance conditions their high school graduation requirements.

"Instead of opting into it, they are automatically prepared," Siqueiros said. "That's absolutely a strategy for how you get students to be more responsible."

Even so, Latino students who get into college might not be prepared for the rigor of college coursework.

Paul Oliaro, Fresno State's vice president for student affairs, said about 31% of 2012 freshman Latino students needed to take both remedial math and English. That's compared to 26% of the university's overall 2012 freshman class.

There is a clear correlation between needing to take remedial classes and graduating, he said, which is one reason why the university is targeting prospective Latino students early — before they even apply for college.

Frances Peña-Olgin, director of the university's outreach services, is in charge of getting more college-ready Latinos from the Valley through Fresno State's doors.

"We have university students who are (in Fresno Unified schools) on a regular basis to work with students directly," she said. "In the application period, they're doing a number of workshops to help students apply using the CSU mentor application and submitting the documentation they need."

Fresno State also got an extra $3.18 million federal grant in 2010 geared at closing the achievement gap between Latinos and other Fresno State students.

University officials say those efforts are paying off.

Over the last 40 years, Peña-Olgin said, the number of Fresno Unified students who enroll at Fresno State has jumped by 32%. Latino retention rates are improving, Oliaro said, and this fall marked the first time the number of freshman Latino students reached 50% of the overall incoming class.

But whether those students will get a diploma is another question.

The most recent university data shows Latino students still lag far behind their peers when it comes to getting a degree. Only 8.4% of Latinos graduate in four years compared to 26.3% of white students. The numbers improve on six-year rates, but both Latinos and certain other minority groups including blacks and Asians still are behind white students.

Overall, Fresno State's six-year rate is 48%.

"If anything goes wrong, such as a parent loses a job, these students have to drop out and that creates financial hardships," Oliaro said. "Academic difficulty is another thing, sometimes it's financial aid, sometimes it is personal medical reasons."

For Latinos who choose a different path, like enrolling at a community college before going on to a four-year school, there are other challenges.

Chris Villa, vice president for student services at Fresno City College, said up to 90% of the school's students enter unprepared. Those students, 47% of them Latino, may have to take years of remedial classes to get up to speed, he said.

That could be one reason why the school's completion rate is so low.

Fresno City figures show about 44% of its most recent graduates finished two year's worth of coursework after six years.

The most recent data from the nonprofit National Student Clearinghouse shows only 16% of Fresno City students who enrolled transferred to a four-year school in three years or less.

There are other factors, too, Villa said, like affording classes and navigating the transfer process.

State lawmakers are trying to make that pathway easier: Just this year, legislators approved a bill guaranteeing admission to a CSU school for students enrolled in certain community college majors.

But even with the changes, Villa said, many students still won't get a bachelor's degree.

"It can be very complicated and daunting for a student, especially a low-income Hispanic student, to go through this whole process," he said. "(Lawmakers) are trying to do things to get students to finish, but the reality is, things happen in (students) lives."

Fresno State got an extra $3.18 million federal grant in 2010 geared at closing the achievement gap between Latinos and other Fresno State students.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, hfurfaro@fresnobee.com or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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