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College Transition Programs Aimed to Improve Latino Achievement

Getting Latino students into and through college can be a challenge.

Many are first-generation college students whose families aren't familiar with the U.S. higher education system and financial aid. There can be language barriers and a cultural reluctance to move away from family and borrow for school. And, like other historically disadvantaged minority groups in the United States, many Hispanics attend K-12 schools without adequate counseling or course rigor.

(See my full story on this issue, For Many Latino Students, College Seems Out of Reach in the latest edition of Diplomas Count.)

While Latinos lag behind other groups in college completion, there has been progress: The number of Hispanics with a bachelor's degree grew 80 percent from 2.1 million to 3.8 million in the past ten years.

There are promising approaches across the country helping Latino students make the transition from high school to college and into the workforce.

It was a summer program at Maricopa Community College in Phoenix that made Isaac Zúñiga realize higher education was a possibility for him. He grew up as the oldest of three children to Mexican parents in a low-income household in south Phoenix. In high school, Zúñiga was selected for Achieving a College Education (ACE), a program targeted at students who might not otherwise consider going to college. Students can earn up to 24 credits for free by the time they finish high school by attending classes in the summer and on Saturdays during the fall and spring semesters.

At first, Zúñiga tested at a remedial level in math, English, and reading and was diagnosed with dyslexia at 18. "I didn't let that discourage me," recalls Zúñiga, now 33. "I took more classes and once I believed in myself that I could do college work, my grades picked up." He graduated a semester early, went to college, then graduate school, and his now working toward his PhD while serving as an associate dean of student services at Kennedy-King College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago.

Working in 90 high schools, ACE has served more than 16,000 students since 1988, says Stella Torres, program director. "We are not looking for the cream of the crop. We are looking for those students we can reach and turn around," she says. The experience of being on a college campus is enlightening for high school students. "Some are amazed we have no bells," says Torres. Parent orientation may be offered in Spanish, as over half of ACE participants are Latino. From 2005 to 2010, about 85 percent of ACE students graduated early or on time. The college attendance rate among ACE students exceeds national rates, with 75 percent of 2008 ACE high school graduates going on to college.

More intentional outreach efforts, such as the one in Phoenix, will be needed to serve the growing U.S. Latino population. It's a young minority group with an average age of just 27, compared with about 40 for most other population groups, which means opportunities are ripe for educational interventions aimed at this population. To expand programs in an era of budget cuts, many high schools and colleges are turning to community organizations and businesses for support. Often what these students need most, says Torres, is hope—the idea that college is open to people like them and they can succeed.


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