Latino students face barriers to higher education

Published: Tuesday, June 26 2012 10:00 p.m. MDT

Editor's note: This report is part 4 of "Coming to our Census," a series of reports that takes a careful look at the issues posed by the changing demographics of Utah and the nation.

Related coverage

Part 1: The changing face of Utah - Are we ready to embrace the future?
Part 2: Poll results: Utahns welcome diversity but perceptions don't always match reality
Part 3: Some solutions in place to close education gap, but is Utah willing to pay for them?
Part 5: Minorities face hurdles in getting health care
Part 6: Immigrants, refugees can choose which aspects of culture to assimilate

Editorial: 'Coming to our Census' series takes needed, critical look at issues posed by Utah's changing demographics

Lists: Poll responses: Benefits of a more diverse population in Utah; Poll results about Census data: Perceptions don't always match reality

KSL coverage: 'Coming to our Census'

Chris Lopez (not his real name) has an impressive résumé. He graduated from one of Utah's top high schools with a 3.6 grade point average. He is fluent in two languages. He was the leader of his Boy Scout troop and participated in a youth leadership and college preparation program at school.

As a freshman, Lopez secured a spot as a starting forward on his school's varsity soccer team. His small stature and impressive speed earned him the nickname "Chicharito," which means "little pea." He shares the moniker with Javier Hernandez, a top Mexican professional who plays for Manchester United.

Lopez has been accepted to Utah Valley University and intends to enroll there this fall. For many top high school graduates, the move would be a modest accomplishment, but Lopez is a pioneer. He is the first person in his family to graduate from high school — let alone be accepted to a university. He was even offered a small scholarship. His proud parents gave him a used car as a high school graduation present. He will need it to make the hourlong commute to and from campus.

Despite his determination and auspicious beginning, Lopez will have to beat the odds to graduate from college. Lopez is an undocumented immigrant. His scholarship only covers his first semester's tuition, which means for every semester thereafter, he will need to come up with $3,000. Without papers, he will have trouble finding a job to pay for the next three-and-a-half years.

President Barack Obama's pledge to give asylum to undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children doesn't give Lopez a lot of peace of mind. Deportation is still a reality for his parents. "Congress might stop him," he said of Obama's plan. "He might not get re-elected." Lopez knows that until everyone in his family has papers, all bets are off.

His father, a landscaper, depends on Lopez to help him communicate with clients. His mother, who works seven days a week cleaning houses, relies on him to tend his younger twin brothers and help out around their cramped two bedroom apartment. His hardworking parents have committed to help him as much as they can, but he can't quite shake the feeling that going to college is selfish. "I could help my family a lot if I just get a job," he said.

Lopez's situation is not unique.

Across the country, smart, capable Hispanic students face immense obstacles to fulfill their collegiate dreams. While some of the challenges are particular to undocumented students, many apply equally to legal residents and citizens.

Latinos have the lowest level of educational attainment of any racial or ethnic group in the United States, according to Alberta Gloria, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Since 2000, white adults have been two times as likely as U.S. born Hispanics to receive a bachelor's degree and four times as likely as foreign-born Hispanics, according to Marta Tienda, a professor at Princeton University.

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