Latino Achievement Gap Narrows In Higher Education

Hispanic college students have, for years, performed and graduated at lower rates than white students. Many institutions of higher learning have been working to reduce that achievement gap. A new study has found that a number of universities have not only closed the gap but are graduating Latinos at higher rates than whites. Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Oregon is among that number, having graduated 49 percent of Hispanic students compared with 43 percent of whites between 2006 and 2008. Host Michel Martin speaks to the study's co-author Jennifer Engle of The Education Trust and Western Oregon University associate provost, David McDonald.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Next we have another story on education. That's an ongoing focus of this program. President Obama yesterday signed an executive order to boost administration efforts to improve the education of Latino students. The order renews and enhances the White House initiative on educational excellence for Hispanics. That's a national effort intended to support educational opportunities for Hispanic students.

The White House initiative is intended to address the so-called achievement gap, the fact that some ethnic groups lag behind others in graduating from high school and college. One new study shows that only 13 percent of young adult Latinos hold a Bachelor's degree. That's compared with 39 percent of whites and 21 percent of African-Americans.

But at least one school has found success at graduating Hispanics at higher rates. David McDonald is associate provost of Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Oregon. His school recently reached a 49 percent graduation rate for its Hispanic students. He's here with us to talk about it from his office. Also with us: Jennifer Engle of the Education Trust, one of the co-authors of a nationwide report about minority achievement in college. I welcome you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. JENNIFER ENGLE (Education Trust): Thank you so much for having me today.

Mr. DAVID MCDONALD (Associate Provost, Western Oregon University): Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Jennifer, why don't we start with you? Was there any kind of consensus about the difference between schools that did well in graduating Latino students and those that did poorly or not as well?

Ms. ENGLE: What we know when we reach out to institutions that are serving their students equally well, regardless of their racial background, is that we know that it starts with leadership and certainly has to come from the president and the provost level of the institution. You know, when we look across the country, almost every campus has a freshman orientation program.

But unless there is a culture of success cultivated by the leadership of the institution, we don't see the kind of impact for those services like we do in these institutions that have small gaps.

MARTIN: On this question, it seems to me that many institutions often focus on enrolling more minority students, more students from diverse backgrounds. Is part of the difference here that rather than focusing on enrollment, they focus on graduation and completion of the degree?

Ms. ENGLE: Certainly. What we found, and even as a country, we've changed the conversation from an access conversation to a completion conversation because we realized that just getting more students into college, as President Obama noted, that you played earlier, that's not the success story. The success story is getting the students through successfully to a degree that's going to have value to them and increasing their life chances.

MARTIN: So Mr. McDonald, let's turn to you. Your school has a student population that is seven percent Latino. You went from graduating 36 percent of Latino students in 2002 to a 49 percent graduation rate just six years later. Now, how did that happen?

Mr. MCDONALD: Well, it happened in large part for some of the reasons that Jennifer noted. Our president, John Minahan, made it very clear to the faculty, the staff and our students that we were to be a successful enterprise, that we were to have more students graduate from the university, especially Latino students. He made those comments - numerous occasions. And I think one of the points that Jennifer makes about leadership is that the leadership has to be unwavering and it has to be constant.

So at every audience, public, on the campus, outside the university, the president was very clear that Latino student success was going to be one of our priorities. And then we marshaled the resources behind that to make sure that we in fact accomplish that.

MARTIN: Give me an idea of what you think you've changed that made a difference.

Mr. MCDONALD: Well, I think there were at least three major initiatives that we put in place that affected all of our students, but specifically our students of color. The first was that we looked at where our students of color had weaknesses and needs. And most of them were first generation, which means that they do not have a parent who graduated from college. So we had to make sure our academic advising was strengthened in every possible way.

And it's intrusive. So we actually look into their situations before they walk in the office for their appointment. So we're ready to have these conversations about what it is they're struggling with, what are their questions? How can we help them move forward?

The second part to the advising is that we looked at affordability. Latino students, African-American students, first generation students typically are also lower income. And so we put in place in 2007 a tuition promise and that affected all of our students. And it said that any student on our campus is guaranteed that their tuition will not increase for the four years it should take for them to graduate.

And the final thing we did was we said to everybody, we're not about access, as Jennifer noted, we're about student success. And we told the students this. We told their parents this, that they came to Western to graduate, not to come to Western and be successful upon entry, but to be successful all the way through their degree.

MARTIN: I should've gone to Oregon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCDONALD: Never too late.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm talking about the - closing the college achievement gap, particularly for Latino students, with Jennifer Engle from the Education Trust, that's a nonprofit group that promotes student achievement; and David McDonald, he's the associate provost of Western Oregon University, the university that has substantially improved the graduation rate for its Latino students in a relatively short number of years.

And I note the number of years. Six years is significant because that's seeing one graduating class through, you know, plus a little bit more. And I am wondering, Mr. McDonald, are the students that you're graduating now the same students that you were admitting before when your graduation rates were lower?

Mr. MCDONALD: Largely they are, except we're graduating more of them. And we've increased the number of students who are low income. And we've increased the percentage of our students who are first generation. So we've actually increased the graduation rate. At the same time we've become more diverse and stronger.

MARTIN: And Jennifer, that's a question I had for you, which is that - of the institutions that tend to succeed in graduating students of color, I'm wondering is it because they particularly focus on the particular interest of these students and needs of these students? Or is it that they tend to serve the entire student population in a different way than institutions that don't succeed as well?

Ms. ENGLE: What we've learned from the institutions that we've talked with is that they often have intentional recruiting strategy to make sure that they diversify their incoming class. But then after having done that, they tend to have a more global strategy in terms of increasing retention at graduation for all students.

What we do find - again, through that use of data - is that these institutions find that students of color tend to disproportionately use and disproportionately benefit from the services as well. So even when the services aren't targeted, when they're intentional about making sure that all students get access to the services and do it in a coordinated way, there's actually a bigger benefit for students of color.

MARTIN: Jennifer Engle is director of higher education at the Education Trust. That's a nonprofit group that promotes student achievement. She joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Also with us, David McDonald, associate provost at Western Oregon University. He joined us from his office there. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. ENGLE: Thank you so much for having us.

Mr. MCDONALD: Thank you very much.

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