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First-generation Latino college students want to make it through college but need more support to graduate

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | May 30, 2017

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PUC students at the Senior Send-Off event last week at PUC Sylmar Education Complex.

More Latinos than ever are going to college, but as a group they continue to struggle to get a college degree.

Those who are getting their diplomas this spring have much to celebrate, especially as the number of Latinos graduating from college is only slowly increasing, rising just 7 percentage points in two decades. In 1995, 9 percent of Latinos were making it to college graduation; by 2015, that number had only risen to 16 percent, according to The Condition of Education, a congressionally mandated report by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) that is provided to Congress each year. In comparison, about 41 percent of whites completed college.

It’s even tougher for first-generation Latino college students to make it to graduation, even to get through their first year in college.

“College is difficult, but the courses are not the most difficult part about being a first-generation college student,” said Brenda Contreras, a Latino and first-generation college student at Sacramento State University and member of Students for Education Reform.

“I wish I would have learned that college isn’t just showing up to class and doing the work. As a first-gen student of color, college has been a whole new world that I was not prepared for,” she said.

According to the first national survey of its kind conducted by Students for Education Reform (SFER), a national organization of college students fighting for educational justice, 72 percent of first-generation college students believe a college education is their “ticket to get out of poverty.”

Recognizing those challenges, one Los Angeles charter school network, PUC Schools, has developed a “Senior Send-Off” program, which was held last week for the third consecutive year. As part of this program, 350 senior students attended an event last Thursday at PUC Sylmar Education Complex, where they received information and other resources to help them stay in college for at least the first year, when they are most likely to drop out.

Concerns such as how to access health services and planning their academic coursework were discussed, as well as how to avoid the “summer melt” — when students who have committed to colleges and have completed their financial aid lose their motivation over the summer and don’t show up in the fall.

PUC Schools, which serves a 95 percent Latino student population, has a 60 percent first-year persistence rate, which is on par with the national average, but much higher than the average rate for Latino students, according to PUC, in part as a result of its program. LA Unified does not compile college-going data for its students.

“That first year at college, it was really tough and I totally credit this alumni program for helping me through the rough patches,” said Kevin Soto, who will enter his sophomore year at Cal State Northridge next fall and is a PUC Schools alumni.

“Knowing that the PUC community — school officials, former students, and those who graduated with me — was always there for me gave me strength and regularly reminded me that I had the ability to do well and thrive in college. I’m so happy now to pay it forward and help the latest PUC graduates find success as well,” Soto said.

“The first year of college is the most critical. If we can assist students through the first year, their likelihood of persisting significantly increases,” Vickie Morales, PUC’s alumni relations manager, said in an email statement. “We want to deter dropping out as the only option because students are unable to figure out how to self-advocate or to whom to address their concerns. Sometimes one simple call helps the student remain in college.”

The SFER survey also found that 36 percent of first-generation college students feel that high school did not prepare them for college. And most of them would have liked to learn other skills such as financial education, job interviews, how to build a resume, and stress management.

“Non-academic reasons like confusion regarding financial aid, next term’s registration process, holds, or other transitional factors — such as homesickness, culture shock, or family pressure — can be the main culprit as to why students drop out of college,” Morales said.

“These students have worked hard to overcome many challenges to get to college,” said Alexis Morin, executive director and co-founder of SFER. “Their perspective reminds us why it’s so critical to remove obstacles to opportunity and help more students from all backgrounds get to and through college.”


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