A step in the right direction, for Latino/Chicano students
By Victor Menaldo
It is a welcome and surprising fact that, in relation to Anglo-students and other minorities, Chicano and Latinos are over represented in institutions of higher learning.
But, though Chicanos and Latinos are more likely to enroll in colleges and vocational schools (graduate schools are the glaring exception), Latinos and Chicanos are also more likely than their Anglo and African American peers to drop out of institutions of higher learning. In fact, because more than a majority of Latinos who study at institutions that offer an advanced degree drop out before they graduate, they abstain from receiving higher education’s most coveted asset: a ticket to a higher paying job and a better life.
The upshot is stark: less than 13% of Latinos have bachelors or advanced degrees, on top of the fact that Latinos are, after Native Americans, the most educationally disadvantaged of all groups in the USA.
The obvious question is, what accounts for the glaring discrepancy between high attendance rates for Latinos and their extremely low graduation rates? Many educators, policy-makers and sociologists agree that there is one factor in particular that accounts for high attrition rates. The consensus is basically that the endemic lack of support for Latino students at America’s institutions of higher learning compounds more specific problems. Latino students often present needs and interests that are unwittingly neglected by faculty, fellow students and administrators.
Most individuals committed to bolstering the ranks of the educated among Latinos and Chicanos in the United States soberly admit that they cannot rely on any panaceas; their quest to arrest Latinos’ pernicious attrition rates is challenging indeed. This is because Latinos represent the most unorthodox cohort of college students. Latinos are less likely to enroll in college during the traditional college age years and more likely to attend two year colleges that offer lower tuitions and can accommodate students that work outside of school.
Although there is no easy solutions to these problems, at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), they are taking a step in the right direction through the new Program and Minor in Chicana/o and Latina/o Arts and Humanities (CLAH). Specifically, the CLAH Program and Minor focuses on the political, cultural and linguistic importance of Spanish-speaking communities in the United States.
For one, Dr. Rosaura Sanchez a professor of Literature at UCSD and Steering Committee member for the new minor agrees with the idea that degrees offered in Chicano and Latino studies will be a step in the right direction. Dr. Sanchez’s opines that “clearly the very existence of Latino Studies programs means that there are faculty and staff members available to work with Latino/a students at that university... The presence of these programs is especially crucial in the case of students who feel alienated on campus, whatever their majors may be. Latino Studies programs create a particular welcoming climate that can make the difference in a student’s academic career and work against high attrition rates.”
Yet, the situation at UCSD is a little more nuance than it is at other institutions at higher learning. For one, graduation rates are above average for Latino students at UCSD. In fact, Dr. Jorge Mariscal, another Steering Committee member and professor of Chicano Literature at UCSD, singles out an outreach problem of sorts, rather than a retention problem, when he states that “there is a long-standing problem with... convincing students who are admitted to UCSD to actually enroll and attend.” Yet, Mariscal adamantly believes that the new CLAH Program will help to attract Latino/a students, “by making available courses more visible and by strengthening ties between the campus and the off-campus Spanish-speaking community.” Moreover, Maris-cal believes that by positively affecting campus climate, the program may contribute to the retention and graduation of Latino/a students.
The CLAH Program’s most interesting pedagogical trait is that it helps creates the unique inlets into broader academic milieus, which enriches a student’s overall educational experience and allows the student to pursue his/her goals more robustly and successfully. The Program is bound to ramify what were (perhaps) originally only specific interests in Latino or Chicano History, Art or Literature into broader historical, artistic and literary interests that include transnational and transhistorical motifs. Dr. Sanchez thinks that, for example, “a student in Latino Studies may become interested in the study of History after he/she takes a course in Chicano/a history as part of the minor.”
Or, vice versa, those students with broad interests in History, Art or Literature may decide that it is necessary to immerse themselves in greater detail about the History, Art or Literature of Spanish-speaking communities in the United States.
The minor will explore the complex histories of Latinos in this country and will zero in on diverse cultural legacies and contemporary Latino/Chicano art. The subtle and understudied presence of Hispanic/Mexican settlers in the American Southwest will be studied in synergy with the more recent contributions of Spanish-speaking individuals from Caribbean, Central American and South American nations.
It is for good reasons that Dr. Mariscal is optimistic about the prospects of the program. Accordingly, he says that “Chicano and Latino culture is a growing and exciting area of study, and we hope the minor will broaden everyone’s understanding of how Chicanos and Latinos have contributed to the American experience.”
When asked what the broader implications of the minor on the UCSD community and the potential effect the CLAH Program on other universities in California, Dr. Sanchez speculated that the minor in Latino/a Studies “will undoubtedly serve as a magnet to attract students to UCSD as it will give us greater visibility and enable us to establish contact with interested high school students. The program will provide needed resources and information and become identified with our presence on campus. In view of the fact that people of Mexican origin are the largest Latino population in the Southwest, we have created a Latino/a- Chicano/a Studies program.
By 2008, Chicano and Latino students will be the largest ethnic group among California’s high school graduates; the Latino population in California is expected to reach 50 percent by 2030.
It is unfortunate to think that Latino students may continue to attend college in droves while, paradoxically, failing, in record numbers, to consummate their studies. This is because there is unequivocal evidence to support the claim that higher levels of educational attainment lead to better job opportunities for those who pursue and attain higher levels of education. Undoubtedly, resources gained during studies in colleges, technical/vocational schools and graduate schools allow students to gain access to sophisticated and high paying jobs. And, of course, advanced degrees enhance student’s abilities to perform these jobs. Also, by the mere fact that students are enrolled in institutions of higher learning to begin with, intangible benefits are conferred upon these students, like the participation in social networks and access to future social and professional opportunities.
When Latinos drop out they miss out, on valuable educational skills, unique social networks and the economic integration that leads to higher incomes and widens social, economic and political opportunities. However, there is hope that this will not, necessarily, continue to be the status quo for Latinos. Evidence so far indicates that innovative, interesting and dynamic programs that appeal to Latinos, such as the Program and Minor in Chicano and Latino Arts and Humanities at UCSD, are instrumental in extenuating the gap between Latinos’ educational potential and their educational reality.