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A Research/Policy Hub on Latina/os and Higher Education

What We Know about Latina/o Student Access and Success in Postsecondary Education

A Report to the Lumina Foundation
Raymond Padilla, Ph.D.

Meso Context: Opportunity Structure

InstitutionsElementary School

34.  Early math grades predicted overall academic performance, and changes in math and English tended to occur together with decreases in math particularly linked to poor academic outcomes.

35.  Those parents who expressed an interest in furthering their education had children who aspired to attend college, and those parents who did not aspire to further their education, or had low levels of aspirations, had children with similar levels of college going aspirations.

36.  Only about half of the parents in one study were able to report their child’s occupational or educational aspirations.


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Institutions – Middle School

37. College recruitment and admissions activities should begin at the junior high school level and should incorporate activities that engage both the students and their families.  Having staff with connections to the population served is important.

38. College recruitment programs should promote learning rather than focus on protecting youth from their perceived negative environments.  They should help students locate resources and negotiate obstacles by building bridges between home, peers, and school, especially for immigrant and Spanish speaking students who may not know about the resources available to them.


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Institutions – High School

39.  Most extracurricular activities are correlated with a much higher likelihood of retention in high school.  Non-athletic extracurricular activities have a greater positive relationship with school retention, but athletics also correlate with a higher likelihood of retention.

40.  In one study, Latina/o students noted that the primary drawbacks to their college aspirations were the low expectations of some teachers and dissuasion at times by counselors about the attainability of the students’ college going goal.

41.  Higher levels of assisted performance were related to higher grades for students in the college preparatory track, but the reverse was true for students in the remedial tracks.  This may show that students in the remedial tracks were receiving less effective instruction.

42.  In a California study, schools that offer more Advanced Placement (AP) classes are located in more suburban and affluent parts of the state.  Schools serving urban, low income communities enroll the fewest number of students in AP classes.  Students who do not have access to AP programs are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to applying for admission to the University of California.

43.  In 2003 Latina/os averaged a score of 2 (5 is maximum) on five AP exams – Biology, Calculus AB, Chemistry, English Literature/Composition, and U. S. History.  In contrast, Whites and Asians had an average score of 3 (passing) on three of the five examinations.

44.  Reflecting on their high school preparation, Hispanic undergraduates were less likely to rate the quality of their education as excellent and more likely to rate it as fair.  They mentioned the absence of college preparatory classes and suggested that teachers focus on critical thinking skills, better study skills, offer more counseling about college, and increase writing practice.

45.  The first challenge experienced by Latinas in one study was breaking the expectation that they would stay at home while enrolled in college.

46.  In another study, Puerto Rican students reported close ties between their high academic achievement and their religious beliefs and extracurricular activities.  Often they attributed good academic performance to God.  Through religious activities and extracurricular activities both at school and at church, students gained access to support networks and resources that helped them do well in school.


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Institutions – Postsecondary

47.  High achieving Mexican Americans (doctoral level) from low income backgrounds had certain common characteristics:  Parenting styles with an authoritarian figure, the mother playing an active role in education, and families sharing values often attributed to the middle class, thus creating a “culture of possibility”.

48.  College entrance examination scores do not significantly predict college outcomes for Hispanic students.  But low test scores affect students’ opportunities, or perceived opportunities, to secure scholarships, to gain access to competitive programs, and lessen self confidence.

49.  During the 1990s, the following financial aid trends were noted for Hispanic students: 

A decline in the percentage of recipients of grants only; an increase of recipients of loans only and of grants and loans.

50.  In one study, the underlying experience of Latina/o doctoral students is described as fragile and vulnerable. Latina/o doctoral students felt as if they were “made out of glass” and “held their breath” hoping that they would not break before the process was over.  Factors that gave rise to the feelings of  vulnerability included entering a new and unfamiliar world, the lack of an adequate Latina/o presence in their programs, experiences as an “outsider-within” status, enduring identity changes, yearning for validation, and enduring conflicts between two different worlds.

51.  With respect to four-year degrees, household variables (e.g. parents’ education, place of residence) explain the majority of the differences between Whites and non-Whites (Mexican Americans) in completion rates.

52.  With respect to the Gates Millennium Scholars:  The promise of long term financial support for each student has the effect of extending opportunity, of allowing students to focus on college goals, and ultimately of ensuring success against the odds typical for the majority of college bound low income students.

53.  Latinas’ drive for generational change, or breaking the cycles of oppression of their mothers and grandmothers, was a critical resource.  Latinas were inspired by women who had dedicated their lives to helping their families survive and with whom they shared an experience of gender oppression.  Education provided these Latinas the opportunity to achieve for themselves and attain higher status.

54.  For Latina/o students, sharing concerns with parents, friends, siblings, and significant others was seen as preferable to seeking professional help.  Coping alone, or keeping problems to oneself, also was preferred.

55.  In one study, Latina/o students talked about how their interaction with faculty and the development of a relationship with them helped the students to develop a stronger sense of self competence and academic ability.  The faculty members were mentioned by name.  Knowing that the students could turn to faculty members for advice and guidance was reassuring to them.

56.  In a study of a community college with seventy percent Latina/o student enrollments, it was found that the transfer rates to four-year colleges and universities, especially the University of California, were very low even though a high number of students reported to have enrolled with the goal of transferring (173 out of 191 students had such a goal).  Latina/o students were overwhelmed with balancing multiple roles and responsibilities outside of college, including those related to family and finances.

57.  Latina/o student college success can be driven by the student’s ability to create new networks and maintain old ones, and by relying heavily on old networks.  Students who go at it alone and are unable to create new networks or keep old ones, do less well.

58.  In the Texas ten percent plan approach to university admissions, the entering freshman class had more Latina/o students from the top ten percent than when race conscious admissions policies were in place.  Although it was argued that some Latina/o students admitted through the ten percent plan had lower SAT scores than other students who were not admitted through the ten percent plan, the students with lower SAT scores had better grades and higher retention rates than those with higher SAT scores.

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Access -- Awareness

59.  Adolescent students expected to attain professional jobs and to attend college.  However, their reading scores were low enough to cause the researchers’ concern that their expectations might be unrealistic.  Children who were younger held higher expectations.

60.  One study reported that there was a lack of communication between the Latino parents and school guidance counselors or administrators.  Parents often reported negative experiences with school staff. Parents often were unaware of the importance or meaning of SAT scores.

61.  For high achieving Puerto Rican students, their mothers were key in helping the students find information about college and financial aid, especially when the school did not provide these.

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Access – Aspirations

62.  One study found that 46 percent of Latina/o students (elementary and middle school) aspired to become higher executives and major professionals (doctors and lawyers) while 19 percent aspired to other professions.  Most of the students could identify obstacles and resources related to their aspirations.

63.  Puente (an intervention) students maintained higher aspirations across all four years of high school as compared to non Puente students.

64.  Aspiring to an advanced degree has a positive influence on college enrollment rates for Hispanics.

65.  Hispanic undergraduate students’ aspirations for a graduate education were higher when they spent more time studying, were exposed to arts and humanities courses, and possibly when they participated in athletics (sample was low for the last item).

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Access – Preparation

66. Hispanic students preferred high school teachers who explained things well, were patient, friendly, and made the course work relevant.

67.  Students in one study were most critical of their science and math teachers and often had difficulty with math.  Hispanic students’ least favorite teachers were likely to be in math, foreign languages, and English.

68.  Well prepared Latina/o students attend postsecondary institutions that are less selective and have lower BA completion rates than similarly prepared Whites.  When well prepared Latina/os go to the same kinds of schools as their White peers, they have lower graduation rates.

69.  Students participating in an advanced diploma program appreciated that their school faculty and staff valued them personally, saw them as assets, provided good role models, advocated for them, and created a safe environment at school.  They also stated that school personnel had high expectations for their achievement, provided programs for their needs, and valued their language and culture.

70.  Adult family members provided students race, gender, and class appropriate narratives that countered the race neutral and meritocratic narratives about college-going they received in school.  These narratives included more honest accounts about the struggles and realities of living racialized, gendered, and classed experiences and the hardships of attaining a higher education, as well as the community responsibilities and obligations that come with attaining postsecondary degrees.

71.  High achieving Latina/o students actively recognized the cultural capital valued in higher education, but also were savvy information gatherers who paid close attention to detail about any information pertaining to college, financial aid, and the fulfillment of their future aspirations.

72.  In California, Latina/o students had an average minimum eligibility rate (to the University of California) of 14 percent statewide, as compared to those Latina/os who attended majority Asian American high schools where the Latina/o eligibility rate was 35 percent.  Conversely, White and Asian American student eligibility rates when they attended majority Latino schools were two to three times lower than when they attended majority White or Asian American schools.

73.  Students’ self rating of academic ability in various disciplines indicates that Latina/o students see themselves as less academically competitive than their White and Asian American counterparts.


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Access – Advanced Placement

74.  In California, schools that offer more AP classes are located in the suburban and affluent parts of the state.  AP classes are not distributed equally among California’s 870 comprehensive high schools.  Therefore, students who do not have access to these classes are not afforded the extra GPA points and other college admissions benefits for taking AP classes, thus reducing their chances of becoming competitively eligible for university admission.

75.  In one school district studied, Chicana/Latina students comprised 68 percent of the total enrollment but only 48 percent of AP enrollment.

76.  Schools serving urban, low income communities of color enroll the fewest number of students in AP classes.

77.  The benefits that AP courses provide (e.g., reduced time to degree, more qualified faculty, college level work) will not be realized at the same level for poorer students of color as there is limited AP access and offerings at the high school level for these groups.

78.  In a study of an advanced high school diploma program involving Latina/o students, it was concluded that the availability of Advance Placement courses and financial counseling were important success factors.  Without these opportunities, the students might not have considered entering college.

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Access – Choice

79.  Previously established college choice factors (high school academic grades, preparation, experiences, and institutional attributes) were not as influential in making a final matriculation decision as were psychological factors.  Feeling accepted, safe, and comfortable in a new academic and social setting have greater relevance for students making their final decision than other factors, such as institutional quality, location, diversity, or cost.

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80.  One study found that college entrance exam scores do not significantly predict college outcomes for Hispanic students.  However, test scores are not benign and may have unforeseen effects on both opportunity and motivation of Latina/o students who score poorly.  This refutes the common perception that college entrance examinations are not very important if students have high grade point averages and are considered good students.  Many students reported resentment that no one, including parents who had attended college and high school teachers and counselors, had alerted them to the importance of the tests and that the students could prepare to take them.  In fact, many reported having been told by these significant adults that the tests “didn’t matter”.  For that reason, a large number of students in the study reported having taken the test “cold turkey”, or without any preparation beforehand.

81.  According to test scores, Whites have higher levels of academic ability as compared to Hispanic students.

82.  Some of the students admitted to higher education in Texas under the ten percent plan had lower SAT scores than other students who were not admitted through the ten percent plan.  Yet, the students with lower SAT scores had better grades and higher retention rates than those with higher SAT scores.

83.  Study of academic admissions indices for the University of California, Los Angeles and Davis revealed that consistent predictors of admission were high school grade point average, SAT I and SAT II test scores, family income, and father’s education.

84.  Latinos have improved very little in SAT performance over the last decade.

85.  One study found that Latino students’ ability as measured by the SAT was a significant predictor of analytical skills in the second year of college.  Similarly, Latino participation in academic support programs was a positive and significant predictor of higher analytical skills.


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Regulators – Transfer

86.  In a study of a community college in California that enrolled over 70 percent Latina/o students, it was concluded that this community college had failed in its commitment to effectively fulfill its transfer function.  This was expressed by the community college’s higher emphasis on maintaining and marketing its vocational and technical programs to the detriment of academic programs.  Some of these programs, like car technology, were said to be important for Latina/o students who come from car cultures.  This shows that administrators and counselors also operated from stereotypical perspectives about Latino culture and students.  These perceptions also were expressed by way of cultural deficit frameworks in which they attributed low transfer rates to Latino families not highly valuing education.


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Regulators – Finances

87.  As early as 1985 it was observed that over 60 percent of all the Latino students received only one source of aid, almost exclusively Basic Educational Opportunity Grants (Pell Grants).  It also was noted that attending a public two-year college meant that students were less likely to receive aid.

88.  Aid packages with loans are less significant in facilitating access for minority students than for Whites.  Increases in federal student grant funding, instead of increased emphasis on student loans, is important, especially for Latino students.

89.  The percentage of Hispanics who did not receive aid increased from 20 percent in 1990-91 to 31.4 percent in 1993-94 and then decreased to 25.1 percent in 1996-97.

90.  One study concluded that the key to increasing the number of Latina/o college graduates is to eliminate poverty and other household factors that come with poverty.

91.  A study of the Gates Millennium Scholars concluded that long term financial support for each student has the effect of extending opportunity, allowing students to focus on college goals and ultimately ensuring success against the odds typical for the majority of college bound low-income students.

92.  Reasons reported for Latino youth not finishing college included the cost of tuition and the need to work and earn money.  Similarly, lack of information about financial aid and college costs are among the major reasons deterring college attendance and completion.

93.  With respect to persistence, one study reported that whereas previous studies pointed to finances as a significant stressor predictive of nonpersistence, finances were not found to be predictive of nonpersistence.

94.  In a study of admissions to the University of California, it was noted that socioeconomic status is more closely associated with admissions than is race.

95.  Another study of persistence at the University of California and California State University systems found that most of the Chicano/Latino students were living at or below the poverty level, and described financial aid shortages as their main obstacle in being able to complete college.


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Regulators – Resources

96. Students in a high school advanced diploma program described their families as having high expectations for their behavior and achievement, teaching them self advocacy, and valuing their language and heritage.

97.  Latina/o students are much more likely than White students to grow up with more than one poverty related disadvantage.  It was recommended that welfare-to-work programs provide mothers with intensive training to increase the achievement of their children.

98.  The results of one study suggested that allocating resources to promote parental involvement is an effective approach for programs that are designed to increase the college enrollment of underrepresented groups.

99.  In a study of admissions to the University of California, it was pointed out that there is a small group of elite college preparatory schools in the state that have a 60 percent admission rate to the University of California.

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Regulators – Interventions

100.  The Principal’s Pick Program was an intervention to increase the number of Latina/o students eligible for admission to the University of California.  The principal took a proactive stance in the high school to make sure that all remedial programs were eradicated and replaced with college preparatory courses.  The study found that counselors and some faculty members strongly held to deficit perspectives and beliefs about Latina/o culture and students.  Many communicated that they did not think Latina/o students were capable of doing college preparatory work, nor were meant to be college students.  Many such personnel either retired or were transferred to other schools.  Those who stayed were strongly committed to the new goals and were willing to change their view about Latina/o students.  The intervention was successful in increasing the number of Latina/o students eligible for admission to the University of California.

101.  Another California intervention, the Puente Project, was designed to increase the college going rates of Latina/o students.  A study of a statewide sample of Puente students concluded that Puente students were more likely to stay in school and have much higher aspirations for four-year college attendance than non-Puente Latinos and non-Puente students in general.  Puente students also were more willing to give up something important to them in favor of school then were the other groups.  In terms of information about and preparation for college, the differences between Puente students and the other students were dramatic.  Puente students were more likely than other students to seek advice from parents, teachers, and especially counselors.  Counselors seemed to play a very important part in the lives of Puente students in terms of working hard, going to college, and future goals.

102.  In a second study of the Puente Project, it was concluded that students in the project experienced academic and interpersonal validation in their interactions with faculty, counselors, and mentors. The validation helped students to gain confidence in their academic ability and this confidence generalized across different classes.  The counselors were seen as actively involved in the students’ academic and personal growth as opposed to the counselor’s traditional role of being confined to an office and taking appointments.  Puente counselors guided students with an educational plan, provided the knowledge needed to transfer to a four-year institution, and offered encouragement and support to the students and their families.

103.  A study was done of three student centered colleges that decided to take into account the background of their students in order to serve them better.  By learning about their student populations and what they bring with them to campus, the institutions were able to respond more effectively to students’ needs by designing programs tailored to the specific student populations enrolled.  Designing such programs required that institutions look across the entire campus (recruitment and admissions, financial aid, student services, academic services, curriculum and instruction, etc.) and evaluate the extent to which their practices were suitable for the students.

104.  A study of the Gates Millennium Scholars (GMS) intervention concluded that GMS has made a difference in lowering concerns about the difficulties associated with paying college expenses.  GMS scholars were more likely to overcome the difficulties associated with low levels of parental education.  They also were more likely to attend more selective public institutions and private institutions, suggesting that the program provides award money that enhances scholar’s college choice.  In addition, scholars were likely to work fewer hours for pay, to live on campus, to rely on their racial group for support, to have a faculty member take an interest in them, and to be committed to obtaining the degree.

105.  An intervention to increase access to higher education for Latino students focused on reducing the information gap of Latino parents about the path to college.  The intervention attempted to empower the parents.  It did so by providing a forum where issues that disproportionately affect families of color could be openly discussed.  Parents were not merely the receivers of information.  They were part of a community that aided them in developing networks and work toward becoming advocates.  In essence, the program helped families to learn about what “the system” is, how it works, and how to navigate it successfully.  It was the regularity of the meetings and the consistency of attendance that helped the parents to develop parental empowerment.

106.  A critical theory approach was the basis for a high school intervention aimed at increasing high school graduation and college going rates.  The aim was to empower the students by requiring them to examine the system of education using their own experiences as a way to understand its complexity.  The study also focused on developing the students’ strengths and abilities rather than addressing deficits.  Of the 30 students who participated, 29 graduates high school and 25 were admitted to a postsecondary institution.

107.  An analysis of critically reviewed interventions for minority students at the postsecondary level revealed that the more effective interventions had the following characteristics:  Institutional leadership, targeted recruitment, engaged faculty, personal attention, peer support, comprehensive financial assistance, enriched research opportunities, creating a bridge to the next level, and continuous evaluation.


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