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Elite Universities and Latino Students

How Elite Universities Fail Latino Students - By ILAN STAVANS
This year's freshman class at Amherst College, where I teach, has 24 Latino students, or 5.5 percent of the total enrollment. There are almost twice as many Asian-American students (45), more Afri-can-American students (41), and more who identify themselves as mixed race (31).

You might infer from those figures that Latinos are a small minority group in the general population. Yet according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were more than 41.3 million Latinos in the United States as of 2004 — about 14 percent of the population. Now our largest minority group, the Latino population is also projected to grow faster than other groups for the foreseeable future.

In other words, 24 is an embarrassing number.

It is no secret that applications from minority students fluctuate from year to year. Indeed, Amherst received more applications from Latino students for this year's class than for any in the past: 325. The number of accepted students was also a record: 115. But after endless maneuverings by admissions officers and others, only 24 enrolled.

I'm focusing on Amherst because I know it best. But I've spent hours talking to admissions officers and colleagues at other elite institutions in the Northeast, and, give or take a few numbers, the picture is equally bleak at most of them. The Class of 2009 at Harvard University, for example, is roughly 7 percent Latino. I suspect the same is true at many, perhaps the majority, of the nation's prestigious institutions.

As elite colleges constantly tell us, what they do matters: to creating the next generation of leaders for a multicultural society, to opening doors to the talented of all backgrounds, to sustaining a functioning democracy. From where I sit, they're not doing a very good job.

To some extent, the problem is systemic. While institutions in regions like the Southwest, where Latinos already make up a significant part of the population, are doing a slightly better job of recruitment, nationwide higher education continues to fail Latinos. In 2002, according to the most recent figures available, Latinos represented about 17 percent of the college-age population, but accounted for just 10 percent of all college students, and just 7 percent of students at four-year colleges. With the mission they have set themselves — to be the gateway to the American Dream — and the resources they have available, elite institutions should do much better than that. Why have they failed?

It's not so much lack of interest. I've been part of countless events on and off the campus where admissions officers entertain prospective "students of color" — usually with a generic program catering to a vague "otherness" that is supposed to appeal to a wide range of minority students.

Unfortunately what elite colleges have in good will, they lack in knowledge. Like most of our nation, they have little awareness of the intricacies of Hispanic civilization north, south, and east of the Rio Grande — beyond a vague association with an unethnic Jennifer Lopez and an asexual Ricky Martin. Latinos are a multifaceted minority with a labyrinthine history. A segment of the population has been in United States since before the Mayflower. Others came in successive waves of immigration from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean, as well as from Europe. Issues of race and class among Latinos are divisive. A mestizo laborer in Oregon, whose original home was in Guadalajara, has little in common with an upper-class Caucasian student from Monterrey, although both are from Mexico. Afro-Cubans, Puerto Rican jíbaros, and numerous other subgroups complicate the matter.

It gets worse. Our admissions office, like most, classifies Latino students from the United States differently from those who have a Latino background but come from elsewhere (they are considered "international" students). The latter, mostly from well-to-do families, rarely perceive themselves as Latino and are resented by working-class Latino students.

Then there is the issue of language. Latinos are embracing English as speedily as any previous immigrant wave, but they are not renouncing their allegiance to Spanish. The duality results in a heightened sense of cultural loyalty. Add to it a shared yet amorphous connection with similar historical motifs, cuisines, and a passion for musical rhythms, and the result is a sum of parts more than a homogenized whole. We haven't even begun to think about how to make our campuses welcoming to such a mixture.

Like other minority students, Latinos are also burdened with being asked to "represent" their group on the campus. The complexity of the Latino minority worsens the challenge. For instance, a Nuyorican student of mine was asked to orchestrate an evening about the Day of the Dead, a traditional Tejano festivity to which she has absolutely no connection. Refusing to do it made her feel like a traitor. That kind of insensitivity is palpable on campus.
Elite colleges also fail in recruiting Latino students because they often rely on a short list of qualified students — determined by SAT scores — from the College Board. Competing with other elite institutions for the names on that list, they flood prospective candidates with letters, invitations to campus, and more. That means that, roughly, the same 325 Latino students applying to Amherst also apply to similar institutions. The results are predictable. Amherst has pursued alternate strategies, like going through organizations in California and Texas, states with large Latino populations, to identify appealing "diversity" students. Success, however, has been minimal.

One handicap is that admissions officers, at least in the Northeast, are hardly ever Latino. That isn't a small point. Without someone in the office fully immersed in Latino life, the possibility of understanding its complexities is lessened.

Another predicament is that most presidents and deans of elite colleges aren't Latino either. Nor are trustees. In 1999, for the first time, my institution put a Latino on its board. It had taken almost 200 years. And then there's the faculty. Elite colleges in the Northeast are still lagging far behind in hiring Latino professors. Most teach in the humanities, not in fields like chemistry, geology, or neuroscience. Latino faculty members are not represented across the entire fabric of the college.

The lack of Latino representation is also felt in the development office. Latinos are slowly moving into the middle class, but over all they are far from affluent. At elite colleges like Amherst, money doesn't shape policy, but it ratifies influence. Without major Latino donors, the priority of recruiting this minority is likely to remain low for the time to come.

Furthermore, it is vital to comprehend what happens beyond the freshman year. The retention level at Amherst is superb: Enrolled Latino students tend to graduate at the same speed as everyone else. Still, there is a recognizable feeling of alienation. The consensus among faculty members is that Latino advisees seek their advisers less frequently than other students do, perhaps because they have a harder time building a teacher-student bond. Student organizations dealing with Latino culture are less active than other organizations — partly because of the small number of Latino students, partly because of the divisions among Latinos. The problem, therefore, becomes circular. The fewer Latinos there are, the fewer ways to make the campus attractive in recruiting them.

I'm aware that by focusing on ethnicity, I run the risk of being perceived as a throwback to the 90s, when there was more support for affirmative action and promoting a multicultural climate than I think there is today. Now, increasingly, the topic is class. I know some institutions are hoping that, by focusing on class, they can also attract more minority students. And I know they are eager to address the social disparities affecting the United States at the dawn of the 21st century. But I have serious doubts that class will prove to be adequate. There is no single, homogeneous working class in America. Ethnicity is a major factor in the way people perceive themselves. True, poverty makes few distinctions, but racism does.

Too often the fact that our elite institutions do such a poor job recruiting Latino students is still swept under the rug. To bring this issue into the light, and to finally do something about it, we need a starting place. I'd suggest that we set up a task force to go beyond the efforts of individual institutions. We could begin here in the Northeast, where the problem is so serious. Let's ask why we have so few Latino students enrolled in some of the nation's top colleges. If the system is the problem, the system is also the solution.
A few months ago, I participated in a panel discussion at Amherst for prospective students of color. There were four professors seated in a large, elegant room filled with almost 100 high-school seniors looking to make a choice. The conversation was about how Amherst is a terrific place to study, where resources are plentiful, and the facilities state of the art; where intellectual rigor prevails, and faculty members and students interact on a regular basis. By all accounts it sounded like a magnificent buy.

At one point, during the Q&A, a shrewd black Latino young man asked: Why aren't there any nonwhite professors in the room? I told him Amherst is changing. I stressed the fact that knowledge isn't ethnicized: You don't have to be Greek to teach the classics. Still, the number 24 kept popping up in my mind.

Ilan Stavans is a professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. He is editor in chief of the four-volume Encyclopedia Latina: History, Culture, and Society in the United States (Grolier Academic Reference, 2005). His latest book is Rubén Darío: Selected Writings, which he edited with an introduction, translated by Andrew Hurley, Greg Simon, and Steven F. White (Penguin Books, 2005).
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 52, Issue 20, Page B20

From the issue dated January 20, 2006

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