Latino students face barriers to higher education

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

Often, this means biting her tongue. For example, when her father, while wandering though the dinosaur exhibit at the Natural History Museum in New York City, muttered that none of this is real, she just smiled and didn't offer her perspective. "I don't want to come across as uppity or conceited," she said. I just have to realize that I can't expect to share everything with them."


Minorities have been hit hard by the economic downturn, according to William Frey, a demographer with the Brooking Institute in Washington. Almost 27 percent of Hispanics are considered below the poverty line, based on data from the National Poverty Center. In order for many of these families to make ends meet, everyone has to contribute.

Garcia-Arcement tells how her mother, the second oldest of 12 children, did domestic work every day since she was 15 to help keep her family afloat. "There is an expectation in many Latino families that the older kids will help support the family," Garcia Arcement said.

The expectation is a challenge for students who want to go to college.

Money that would otherwise go to the family is diverted to tuition and other school-related expenses. "It's hard for kids to feel like they are taking away from their families," said Ali Webb, an English as a second language teacher who worked with the recent high school graduate Lopez.

Hispanic students' desire to help support their families is the No. 1 reason they do not enroll in post-secondary programs, according to a 2011 study by the Pew Hispanic Center.

There is also a strong cultural aversion to loans, Garcia-Arcement explains.

"Lots of families operate on a cash-only basis," she said. "When you have low resources, you don't buy unless you can pay up front," she said.

She recalls her extended family asking her why she was going into debt for school and what she thought she was going to get from it. "Many Americans see education as an investment, but if you don't come from a background of college-educated people, it is hard to understand how that investment will pay out," she said.


Juan Esclanate, 23, wasn't always an undocumented resident of the United States. His family moved to Miami from Caracas, Venezuela, in 2000.

"My dad had an 'L' visa. He worked and paid taxes and planned to apply for permanent residency for the family," Esclante said.

But in 2006, his father's company inadvertently failed to file the family's immigration renewals. By the time they realized what happened, it was too late.

The fallout was devastating.

A top student at his high school, Escalante had been accepted to the University of Florida and was awarded a large scholarship. In order to enroll, however, he had to prove he was a legal resident. When he was unable to produce the documents, his scholarship was revoked.

While some scholarships are available to undocumented students, many others are not. They are not allowed to apply for federal aid. In many states, universities consider them foreign students and charge them anywhere from three to seven times more in tuition and school fees, according to Leisy Janet Abrego of UCLA.

Some undocumented students worry how accepting awards would draw attention to their status. "They are so used to living under the radar," Rios Agular said. "And it is risky to be open about this."

Determined to get a college degree, Escalante looked into other options. At the time, Florida allowed undocumented residents to pay in-state tuition at community colleges. Escalante enrolled at a local school and began taking classes with the hope of eventually finding a way to transfer to a four-year school.

Working as an advocate for Florida's undocumented students, Escalante had met an individual who offered to pay for him to finish his degree at Florida State University. He graduated a few months ago with a degree in international relations.

Escalante is one of the lucky ones, though.

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