• by Josie Danini Cortez, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • October 2014 •

The reporter’s call came late one afternoon: “What does the research say are barriers that Hispanic students face graduating from high school and going on to college?” It was a familiar question.

There is, in fact, a substantial body of research that details the barriers Hispanic students have to overcome, almost all pointing to disadvantages – economic, English learners, poorly prepared, perceived dissonant cultural values – the list goes on and on. It’s easy to see why other research is important when you see the statistics. IDRA’s attrition rate published  (Texas Public School Attrition Study, 2013-14 – School Holding Power is Improving in Texas – At a Glacial Pace) shows that the high school attrition rate in Texas remains highest for Hispanic students at 31 percent.

Lower College-Going Rates

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) reports a similarly troubling statistic for college-going Hispanic students. In its 2014 progress report on Closing the Gaps by 2015, Texas’ plan to close the college participation gaps, half of Hispanic students who graduated from Texas public high schools in 2013 went directly to Texas colleges and universities the following fall (46.4 percent of Hispanic males; 55.9 percent of Hispanic females). (2014)

Stating it another way, about one out of two Hispanic students who graduated from high school enrolled in higher education the following fall. Keep in mind the “colleges and universities” include public, independent, and career institutions: two-year community colleges, four-year universities, technical schools, and private for-profit colleges. That means that bachelor degrees from the University of Texas at Austin are combined with certificates in skilled trades – an important distinction as it relates to earning power, opportunity and advancement.

Nationally and in Texas, Hispanic students are less likely than White students to enroll in a four-year college or university, much less enroll full-time (Lopez & Fry, 2013; THECB, 2014).

A Pew Research Center study shows that nationally, more Hispanic students enrolled in college in 2011. Unfortunately, Hispanics are less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree. In 2012, almost 15 percent of Hispanics 25 years and older had earned a bachelor’s degree, a far lower percentage than Asians (51 percent), Whites (34.5 percent), and Blacks (21.2 percent). (Lopez & Fry, 2013)

In Texas, two-year persistence rates for Hispanics at public universities did increase in 2011 from 76.8 percent to 77.9 percent. But the two-year persistence rate at public community colleges remained the same where only about half (50.7 percent) of Hispanic students remained enrolled after two years.

Of the Hispanic students who entered a four-year college or university, only 65.7 percent graduate after six years (THECB, 2014). And more than half of Hispanic students enrolling in Texas’ public colleges and universities require remedial coursework.

What Are the Barriers?

So what accounts for the gaps? Why do Hispanic students lag behind their non-Hispanic counterparts? And why does the research show that improvement is painstakingly slow? It seems that for every small step ahead – more Hispanics are enrolling in college – there are two steps back: Hispanic students who do enroll only have a fifty-fifty chance of completing at a two-year community college.

There is no question that barriers exist. But the barriers have nothing to do with a student’s ethnicity or their family’s economic level or which language they first spoke.

Barriers exist because of pervasive inequities in educational systems – inequities that manifest themselves in school funding, teacher preparation, lack of access to quality bilingual education programs, college-ready curriculum and instruction, and a myriad of other indicators as delineated in IDRA’s Quality Schools Action Framework.

In 1977, the Cárdenas & Cárdenas Theory of Incompatibilities was published. It states: “Black, Mexican American and economically disadvantaged children have not enjoyed the same success in school as that of the typical middle-class American because of a lack of compatibility between the characteristics of minority children and the characteristics of a typical instruction program.” The fundamental premise of the Theory of Incompatibilities is that it is the institution that must adapt to the students, not the student to the institutions. It is the institutions that must adapt because they control the educational context, and they are ultimately accountable for ensuring that all students succeed. This premise grounds IDRA’s framework for all of its work—from the first statewide study of dropouts that led to Texas House Bill 1010 and a statewide accountability system for students, to the dropout study in Dallas that identified school system reforms needed to hold on to students, to IDRA’s Continuities – Lessons for the Future of Education from the IDRA
Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program
, which outlines seven key lessons for improving the quality of education for all students and to IDRA’s Courage to Connect –A Quality Schools Action Framework that shows how communities and schools can work together to strengthen their capacity to be successful with all of their students.

IDRA has worked with many schools, such as Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD, that have adapted and even transformed themselves into places where all students are succeeding, where families are welcomed, and encouraged to authentically partner with them to ensure their children’s success (Bojorquez, 2014). Many of these schools face “incompatibilities” of poverty, culture, language, mobility and societal perceptions. But they have recognized and turned these incompatibilities into assets and opportunities. IDRA’s College Bound and Determined, released earlier this year, shows how PSJA’s vision and actions, were clearly and independently aligned, with IDRA’s Quality Schools Action Framework™.

Being an “English learner” for example is not a barrier to academic achievement. An English learner is merely on his way to becoming a bilingual-bicultural individual. Rather than forcing students to give up their native language to learn English, schools can provide excellent bilingual education programs that result in fully proficient students who excel in both languages and academic content (Robledo Montecel, et al., 2002). Research has already shown that bilingual people think differently than monolingual speakers, and bilingualism improves memory, diminishes the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s, and improves decision-making (Merritt, 2013).

Bilingualism is also worth more economically, as The Economist recently reported. With a starting salary of $45,000, a person who is bilingual earns about a 2 percent “language bonus.” With compound interest, that 2 percent language bonus turns into an extra $67,000 (at 2014 value) 40 years later. (R.L.G., 2014)

And just as language is not a barrier to a student’s success, neither is poverty. A student’s economic status does not determine her intelligence, the quality of her character or her potential for success. It is the incompatibility between a student’s economic level and the amount of money that institutions require for enrollment, maintaining attendance and graduation that is the barrier. College tuition rates have increased to such an extent that it takes at least 30 percent to 40 percent of a family’s income for a student to attend.

So here is the answer to that reporter. Hispanic students do face barriers every day. And the barriers they face are the poverty of small minds and limited vision, the language of “no” when schools cannot or will not adapt to student characteristics, and the culture of accepting a world of have’s and have not’s. But Hispanic students also have extraordinary organizations, advocates and activists all taking a stand and fighting on their behalf. For over 40 years, IDRA has fought for every child’s right to an excellent and equitable education. And we’ll continue until the work is done.


Bojorquez, H. College Bound and Determined (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2014).

Cárdenas, J.A., & B. Cárdenas. The Theory of Incompatibilities: A Conceptual Framework for Responding to the Educational Needs of Mexican American Children (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1977).

Lopez, M.H., & R. Fry. “Among Recent High School Grads, Hispanic College Enrollment Rate Surpasses that of Whites,” Fact Tank (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, September 4, 2013).

Merritt, A. “Why Learn a Foreign Language? Benefits of Bilingualism,” The Telegraph (June 19, 2013).

Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project. Demographic Profile of Hispanics in Texas, 2011 (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, 2011).

R.L.G. “What is a foreign language worth?The Economist (March 11, 2014).

Robledo Montecel, M., & C.L. Goodman (eds). Courage to Connect – A Quality Schools Action Framework (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2010).

Robledo Montecel, M. Continuities – Lessons for the Future of Education from the IDRA Coca¬Cola Valued Youth Program (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2009).

Robledo Montecel, M., & A. Cortez, M. Penny-Velasquez. The Answer: Valuing Youth in Schools and Families: A Report on Hispanic Dropouts in the Dallas Independent School District (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1989).

Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Closing the Gaps 2014 Progress Report, Planning and Accountability (Austin, Texas: June 25, 2014).

Josie Danini Cortez, M.A., is a senior education associate in IDRA Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at feedback@idra.org.

[©2014, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 2014 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]