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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.

The Latino population of the United States increased significantly throughout the twentieth century so that by the early part of the twenty-first century this population constitutes the largest minority group in the nation. A population of significant ethnic and racial diversity, Latinos nevertheless share a common history, language, and cultural legacy related to the former Spanish colonial empire and the numerous indigenous groups found therein. Increasingly, the Latino population has become an essential part of the U.S. work force so that the prosperity and economic competitiveness of the nation now and in the future can be affected significantly by the productivity of this population. Social integration of the Latino population also is seen as an important issue from an educational and social policy perspective. The nature of this social integration can lead to heated debate given that the presence of Latinos in what is now the United States encompasses groups who are descendents of the original inhabitants of territories incorporated by the United States as well as quite recent immigrants who stream across the borders seeking employment opportunities and social advancement. It is in this historic and social context that Latino education becomes a concern, especially because there has been a significant, persistent, and unresolved gap in the educational attainment of Latina/os as compared to the larger population of the United States. This educational attainment gap is evident throughout the “educational pipeline” but is especially wide in the postsecondary sector. Thus, a top educational priority in many parts of the nation is to reduce the educational attainment gap of the Latino population and make sure that this group experiences success throughout the educational system, including higher education.

The purpose of this report is to summarize the research based evidence that can drive efforts to reduce or eliminate the educational attainment gap for Latinos and to systematically promote their success in postsecondary education. The intent of the report is not to provide an exhaustive literature review of Latinos and higher education, but to examine a significant number of recent published studies (mostly within the last ten years) so that the conceptual approaches to the study of Latinos and higher education can be identified along with specific findings that may have relevance for policy and practice. Hence, the approach is both inductive and heuristic. It is inductive in that almost 100 studies were examined to identify an overall conceptual model of research on Latinos and higher education; and it is heuristic in that the resulting model can help to summarize specific research findings as well as provide a means to identify and prioritize future research. Following is a presentation of the conceptual model as well as a summary of findings from the studies reviewed organized according to the conceptual categories provided by the model.

What We Know: Concept Model shows a conceptual model of what we know about Latinos and higher education based on an examination of almost 100 studies relevant to the topic. The model shows that Latino student educational success or failure throughout the educational system (including postsecondary education) is shaped by how the individual student navigates three contexts of education in the United States. First is the macro context that reflects demographic, immigration, and community issues. This macro context provides a background that affects, often indirectly, the educational success or failure of Latino students. Researchers have focused on demographic trends to show that issues affecting the Latino population will get more pressing as the population increases dramatically in size and geographic distribution throughout the U.S. Similarly, researchers have examined the immigration patterns of this population to determine its movement and settlement patterns throughout the country.

The meso context provides a foreground in which Latino students are seen as navigating through an educational opportunity structure that vitally affects their chances for success or failure in education. This context is seen as encompassing three major components: (1) educational institutions that comprise the segmented educational system of the U.S. (K-16 and beyond), (2) access to (or denial of) educational opportunities within that institutional structure, and (3) various regulators (such as tests, resources, and interventions) that tend to enhance or depress access and success in education. The meso context represents the intersection of individual aspirations and the institutional experiences of Latina/o students as they strive to advance in education.

In addition to the macro and meso contexts there are two micro contexts that immediately impact the educational success or failure of Latino students: The family and institutional climate. With respect to the family, researchers have investigated the role of parents, family, language and culture as potentially enabling or hindering Latino students’ educational success. Along the same lines, issues related to race, identity, migrant status, and resilience are examined in the research literature as elements that may influence the educational outcomes of Latinos. The family micro context is presumed to influence Latino educational attainment throughout all of the segments in the educational system.

The second micro context, institutional climate, refers to the ways in which Latinos experience life on campus. Do they feel welcomed or alienated? Do they want to stay or leave? Here researchers have dealt with issues pertaining to race, gender, equity, transition and adjustment to campus life, stress and coping strategies, and interventions such as mentoring. Institutional climate deals with psycho-social issues that often are not easy to pin down, but that do affect whether Latina/o students ultimately are successful or not in getting an education.

Although the model is depicted somewhat linearly, in fact, the various contexts tend to be mutually interacting and shaping. Thus, the macro context is a background for all other contexts. Similarly, the outcomes of success or dropping out are shown as coming out of the micro context of institutional climate, but students experience success or dropping out from various institutions, contexts, and situations as they progress in their education from the family circle to graduate school.

It is important to recognize that this model is analytically derived and not something used consciously by the many researchers whose work is summarized in this report. Researchers simply investigate issues that they believe are important to understand. When these issues are aggregated across many studies, it is easier to see the shape and contours of that research as a whole. Thus, the model provides a heuristic tool for asking whether researchers have in fact focused on the most important issues. It also allows us to ask about the depth of coverage across topics. Some topics are well researched, others less so. The model also can be useful for identifying possible arenas of intervention, given what is known about the phenomenon of Latino education and the goals that are being sought.

The next part of the report provides a summary of research findings using the concepts shown in the concept model as an organizing scheme for presenting what we know. The bibliographic citations for each context are provided.




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