It came to me tonight on an airplane, the answer to the “What can each of us do?” question about improving today’s dismal higher education levels of American Latinos. The need for ALL college-educated Americans to understand the gravity of the situation and to step up and be personally involved as a long-term mentor must be clearly understood. This post does that.
I just completed a particularly full week in Washington D.C. that involved meeting with Congressmen/women, middle school students, young Latinas (some former high school dropouts now in college), and the gentleman who founded the USHCC.
Let’s begin with a fact: In 2009, only 12.7% of Latino U.S. residents held a 4-year degree. [Pew Hispanic Center]
Now, the national problem: If by 2020 the USA is to get back on top globally, meaning that Americans earn more college degrees versus any other nation, we need to earn 36 million college degrees in the next nine years. [Source: Roadmap for Ensuring America's Future, March 2011]
Due to projected rapid growth rates confirmed by the 2010 Census, 5.5 million of those college degrees must be earned by the Latino community. That averages out roughly to 611,000 Latino college graduates per year, beginning next year (2012.)
Want to guess how many Latinos are graduating annually from college right now? Best numbers put that figure at around 130,000. [Source: National Center for Education Statistics.] See the problem?
In academic year 2008-09, Latino males received 50,628 degrees; Latinas received 78,898 of them (Go mujeres!!).
I saw one annual figure that totaled all Latino high school graduates at 300,000, meaning that even if 100% of high school graduates went to college (and graduated), we’d still be way short of the 611,000 graduates needed annually.
I’m hearing the words of a man I met with in D.C. in my head. “Everyone is talking about the high school dropout problem; nobody is talking about the elementary school and middle school dropout problems.”
Given all that, how do we scale from 130,000 college graduates per year to 611,000 college graduates per year? Is it even possible?
I think it is possible and I have a suggestion as to how to do it. It will involve all of us who currently have at least a bachelors degree. I call it the “Two by 2020 Challenge.”
If you have a college degree, please commit to the following by 2020: do whatever it takes to ensure that one or two young Latinos in your circle of influence stays in middle school, graduates from high school, then graduates from college. This means find a seventh grader and commit to mentor him/her for the next nine years. By this I mean:
- Tell your student he/she is college material (pump them up!)
- Introduce him/her to other college graduates in a variety of fields.
- Help him/her explore a WIDE variety of possibilities for their future profession (I can’t tell you how many students I have met who say “I’m going to study nursing because it sounds good,” or “I’m going to study criminal justice because my dad’s a cop.” You can connect your student to a new person once a month, once a quarter, whatever works. Expand his/her horizons. That’s what many college-educated parents do. It serves to excite and open childrens’ minds.
- Keep your student focused on the long-term view and future successes that become possible with higher education credentials.
- Help your student around and over cultural obstacles that may arise.
- Help your student understand the financial aid process, the FAFSA, etc. Help where you can.
- Do some research and connect your student to at least five scholarship sources. Here’s a phenomenal resource to start with from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute: the National Directory of Scholarships, Internships and Fellowships for Latino Youth.You know was well as I do that there is a TON of money out there for our young people to pursue their education. Guide them through this process. NEVER let your student believe that lack of money is a reason to not pursue higher education!
- Help your student fill out college applications.
- Help connect your student to people so he/she can conduct informational interviews before committing to a major.
- Keep pumping them up; make them believe college IS for them. You may be the only one saying this to this young person.
You get the idea. Just be the force that guides the student from where they are, to where they need to be — in college and beyond.
Plus, if you know someone who started college but didn’t finish, why not have a conversation about what it will take to finish. The reality is we will never achieve the number of college graduates needed without also getting the recent high school graduate who is right now working for minimum wage somewhere into college too. Look around. Be the person that shows up and changes the trajectory of someone’s life, and the lives of his/her descendants, forever.
The vast majority of stories I read about Latinos and Latinas who, like me, were the first in their family to ever attend college, contain a sentence or two about the one person that first showed up in his or her life and told them they must go to college. That person said they were college material, regardless of the economic circumstances of her/his family. That person then became the guide through the application and financial aid phases, and beyond. They made sure it happened -they changed that person’s life. And guess what, in about 90% of these stories, including mine, the person that showed up to be that mentor was NOT a Latino. This means that regardless of who you are, you can, and I dare say you MUST, seek out a young Latino/a in your community, church, wherever and change that life.
I honestly believe that nothing else will make as much an impact as personal commitment to mentoring and guiding by the many thousands of us who already have one, two or three degrees behind our names.
Please, go ahead and commit to this; I cannot stomach the consequences and the idea that we can literally drag the nation down with rapid population growth and dismal education outcomes. So much is at stake for our country. Will you please join me?