My mother was raised in a low-income Mexican-American family. With this background she never imagined college as an option for herself. However, when she was a teenager, my mother applied for a position in the air traffic control industry as a part of a minority recruitment initiative. The initiative offered to train minority individuals without credentials in order to increase diversity among the aviation workforce. This was a rare opportunity to join a field that ordinarily required an advanced degree. Because of this, twenty years later, my mother became the first in our family to earn a college degree.
My mother’s story of poverty and her journey to higher education is reflective of a larger disparity in the Latinx community. In 2016, only 22.6 percent of Latinx Americans between the ages 25 to 64 held a two-year college degree or higher. However, more than 30 percent of African American adults and nearly half of white adults had a college degree.
The reasons for this gap are varied, and tell a story of inequitable access to preparation, financial assistance, and opportunity. According to Prosperity Now, the median yearly income for Latinx families is only $46,882, which is about 20 percent less than the national median. Living in a low-income community can greatly affect access to quality education. Elementary and secondary schools in low-income areas are less likely to have experienced teachers, advanced courses, high-quality instructional materials, and adequate facilities, which affects the rigor of courses and performance of students. Of these students who are accepted into college, they may be unprepared for the rigorousness of college courses, which can lead to lower graduation rates. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the Latinx student dropout rate is twice that of white students. Finally, approximately 80 percent of children of Central American immigrants are first-generation college students.
Additionally, undocumented students, many of whom are Latinx, have limited access to four-year institutions because they don’t qualify for federal aid. This makes a college education even more expensive than it is for students with citizenship. While almost 30 percent of American-born Latinx citizens have a college degree, only 17 percent of Latinx immigrants have a college education.
The Latinx population is the largest and fastest growing group of ethnic minorities in the United States. If we want the American workforce to be college educated, we need to remove barriers to higher education for all Latinx students, including undocumented immigrants. If federal student aid is expanded to include undocumented students, we may be able to bridge the education gap between Latinx citizens and undocumented Latix immigrants. However, we cannot simply stop at improving admittance rates; we must also work to improve retention and graduation rates of Latinx students. By encouraging college campuses to diversify college faculty, include more cultural organizations and events on campus, and provide students with advisors to address their specific needs, we will create a campus culture that is inclusive and therefore, conducive to Latinx student retention nationwide.
According to racial education statistics, some may find it surprising that I achieved high grades, high standardized test scores, and overall success in higher education. However, as a Mexican-American woman, my academic success was because of the support and resources I received. If we as a country want to unlock the full potential of all students in the higher education system, we cannot neglect a single student’s struggle. After all, one life changed by higher education leads to another life changed.