by Albert Cortez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • March 2001

Dr. Albert CortezThe fact that we are still discussing and focusing on Latino student access and school completion issues – four decades after these issues came to the fore in this country – says something about how far we have come and how much further we have to go. While the data show that more Latino and other minority students are enrolling in college, this is actually a result of an ever-expanding number of Latino school-age persons who enlarge the eligible pool of college students.

Looking beyond the raw numbers to percentages, recent data suggest that the inroads that Latinos were making in college enrollment in the 1960s in Texas had begun to erode by the 1980s and remained stagnant or actually declined after that period. More recently, as a result of the anti-affirmative action Hopwood vs. Texas decision and Proposition 207 in California, states with high numbers of Latino and minority pupils have accelerated recent proportional declines.

Population Shift, Accountability Shift

While data have long tracked the negative trend in Latino school completion and college enrollment and graduation, few people seemed concerned about it. Schools were not rated on the basis of their minority school completion or college enrollment rates. Too often when enrollment and graduation data were collected they were not disaggregated by ethnic and racial groups and not used to hold schools or colleges accountable.

Why were such data not collected, counted and reported? Critics of the system would contend that minority student counts were not examined because, in the eyes of major decision-makers, they do not matter. If Latino college enrollment and completion did not matter before, why is it on the minds of many policymakers now?

Those close to the issue point to the growing presence of Latinos, not only in states with already high Latino concentrations such as Texas and California but also in other states around the country. As a result of these population shifts, efforts to increase Latino college enrollment and completion are now charged with a greater sense of urgency and a recognition that time is running out for any large scale efforts to change the status of these students.

Steve Murdock is a highly-regarded Texas A&M University demographer who has been analyzing Texas education and the related economic trend data. Murdock has long warned that unless we change existing kindergarten through grade 12 Latino student graduation and college completion rates, Texas and most other major states face the prospect of overall reductions in college-level enrollments. (See below).

Beyond higher education however, he warns that this lack of attention to Latino education will lead to declines in worker skill levels and decreases in average incomes – which results in reduced markets for goods and services and increased health, social and criminal justice related costs (Murdock et al., 1997). To change those projections in the upcoming decades, states, schools, colleges and local communities must begin to improve their track records now.

Major Transitional Issues

It is important that we consider what we have learned regarding Latino student high school graduation, college recruitment, admission and graduation over the last four decades. Clearly critical transition points play a key role in the process. The transition issues that confronted earlier generations are as much a challenge for today’s non-traditional students as they were to students in the 1960s. These transitional issues include the following:

  • academic alignment or non-alignment across levels within the k-12 system, and between the high school and college levels;
  • high quantity and quality of information delivered on college admissions requirements;
  • high quantity and quality of communicated information about financial aid programs, application procedures and support in completion of all the related paperwork;
  • improved college recruitment efforts and coordinated k-12 to college transition activities;
  • transitioning support – to include both academic and social/psychological supports to help new students persist beyond their first two semesters;
  • greater alignment and collaboration between two- and four-year institutions to facilitate and support the transition of pupils;
  • the creation of new and expanded partnerships that include k-12 schools, higher education, local business community, and community-based organizations;
  • engagement of the whole family in college enrollment and graduation efforts – recognizing that all members play a vital role in the students’ ability to enroll and persist in higher education;
  • systemic strategies for monitoring student progress, which informs critical intervention points; and
  • accountability mechanisms that hold institutions and the larger community accountable for quantifiable outcomes.

Many of these transitional issues have been the subject of extensive discussions for decades, yet remain unresolved. What accounts for this persistent recalcitrance among all levels of the educational pipeline?

Middle School to High School Transitions

Not too long ago, many first and second generation Latino students grew up in families with limited incomes, in poor neighborhoods served by under-funded schools. Older siblings did not make it past the ninth grade, and if a few managed to graduate, lacking both the money and information needed to enroll in college, they went to work, got married, and started families before they turned 20 years old. No one looked for these students when they missed a considerable number of days or did not come back to school after the end of summer. In a short time, many were too far behind to ever consider returning. Enrolled in schools that were often over-crowded and not held accountable for students lost from the system, they became desaparecidos – those who disappeared – at least from the school systems.

Research on causes of school dropouts has evolved over time from ascribing the problem entirely to individual student characteristics to a new socially-based construct. Unfortunately, this approach continues to attribute the root causes to perceived deficits in the student’s social environment – including the home, community and “cultural” factors – failing to consider the inadequacies in the school settings that caused students to dropout. It is this failure to examine inadequate schooling as a root cause that has led to and continues to contribute to our collective failure to improve Latino dropout rates (Supik and Johnson, 1999).

Research shows the move toward dropping out begins by late elementary school when inadequate instruction leads to under-achievement (Robledo, 1989). As students lag behind, schools devote little or no effort to getting them back up to level. Until the mid-1980s, Texas and many other states did not require that schools keep records of or report on high school dropouts. If dropping out mattered, someone would have asked. And no one asked, in part because until recent decades, local economies required uneducated and unskilled workers, and dropouts provided that work force. This changed when our economic demands for educated and skilled workers changed.

Middle School to High School Transition Issues

IDRA’s research on school leavers suggests that, by middle school, students who lag in elementary school continue to fall behind (Johnson, 2000). Complicating the transition from elementary school to middle school was a school organizational scheme that focused on teaching content rather than on teaching students. Familiar elementary school teachers who had taught all subjects and had really gotten to know individual students are replaced by “advisors,” or “home room” teachers who are supposed to counsel and keep track of large numbers of pupils. Each middle school student becomes one of more than 100 students taught by different subject matter teachers over the course of six or seven class periods.

Because of these changes and a new anonymity, many middle school students find themselves languishing further behind as they move up the grades, and they eventually give up on the system, usually preceded by the recognition that the system has given up on them. The effects of in-grade retention at the elementary school level becomes more pronounced in middle school as over-age students are now 14, 15 and sometimes 16 years old. These overage students note that they have the option of an early exit to the workforce and that the state compulsory attendance laws do not require them to be in school after a certain age – often 15 or less.

Students should not be subjected to Darwinian-type “survival of the fittest” philosophies. Middle school to high school is a critical transition point – but few schools have large scale efforts to help ease those transitions. Too often, the various school levels engage in finger-pointing about school leavers – high schools blame middle schools; middle schools blame elementary schools; and all three blame parents and families.

While there are emerging examples of middle school and high school collaborations, they are often exceptions rarely replicated on any large scale in any state. Strengthening middle school support systems and school transitions through enhanced academic alignment, providing “bridging” opportunities across both levels, and strengthening counseling and support systems at middle schools may be a good start. Similar specialized efforts must be maintained at the high school level as well.

High School Transitions – Information and Support

Many Latino high school students are not sufficiently informed about college options. Perhaps if a Latino student ranks at the top of the senior class or is seen as having a promising athletic future, special assistance may be forthcoming – but not guaranteed even in those instances.

Many nontraditional students begin thinking about college in their junior year in high school. By that time it is often too late because they have not taken college enrollment prerequisites or did not maintain an adequate grade point average. By the senior year, too many of these students think their only options are minimum wage jobs, or at best a two-year community college, never having known the range of options that are actually available.

A few lucky or chosen ones sometimes get special attention, but they are too few. Who helps all the other students and families who need information about college admissions requirements and financial aid issues? Obviously counselors and teachers could play an expanded role, but why do so if there is nothing in the school systems that encourages this type of engagement with pupils.

Existing enrollment support systems used in many public schools are built on misguided assumptions that all students come from middle-class, English-speaking homes with at least one adult with post-secondary educational experiences. In such a model, the schools do not need to play a major support role, since the family history provides both a role model and a support system to foster the student through the complex college enrollment and completion process.

Many Latino and minority families do not fit that middle-class profile. They need specialized support systems at all levels in the educational pipeline to foster their transitions through all the critical points in the system. Lest one assumes a deficit perspective of Latino families, it is important to note that studies of Latino family values have shown that, as a group, Latinos place great weight on education, recognizing its role in social and economic mobility.

What has been consistently lacking is the existence of large pools of Latinos who have successfully navigated all levels of the educational system. These Latino graduates could act as an internal support system. This system has long been available to other groups – including African Americans who have benefitted from the existence of historically Black institutions of higher education.

Until the number of Latino college graduates approaches critical mass, specialized support programs will be key to creating and expanding equitable post-secondary educational opportunities for the nation’s fastest growing minority group. Exclusive reliance on federally-funded programs however is ill-advised, in part because it relieves states of responsibility to create their own state-funded efforts in these areas.

For many students, whether or not they enroll in post-secondary institutions is often determined by the luck of the draw or where they happen to live. If students are enrolled in a school served by a specialized program or provided the support needed by a caring education professional or other family or community member, they might have the opportunity to attend college. For others, the lack of such assistance provides more limited options after high school.

In order to strengthen the support systems we must create specialized personnel positions based at the middle schools and high schools. These individuals must have the time and expertise to guide students through the admissions and financial aid applications processes. Included in these systems should be mechanisms for ensuring that all students become familiar with college admissions requirements – not merely entrance exam provisions but high school course work requirements that require critical decisions as early as one’s freshman year. Academic support systems that accelerate instruction for students who have lagged behind and opportunities for advanced placement for those students who are further along are also important parts of the intervention strategy.

In addition to expanding existing support systems, high schools must set up tracking systems that provide status data on students after they have graduated. This system would include how many pupils applied for admission, the number of pupils admitted, the number of pupils who enrolled, and the number of pupils who remained in college.

For it to be considered important, some of the data should be integrated into a high school accountability system, especially the number applying and being admitted into college. History relating to school accountability systems demonstrates that notable change occurs only when policymakers attach consequences to an unacceptable condition.

High School Focused College Recruitment

Research suggests that we fail to enroll and graduate Latino pupils because we fail to actively and effectively recruit them. Colleges that do recruit often spend disproportionate time and resources recruiting the few exceptional graduates, to the detriment of all those who were not the class valedictorians or salutatorians – obviously, too small a pool to fill up the college classes.

College recruitment efforts are assumed to provide opportunities for many students who might not have been considering post-secondary education. Conventional college recruitment efforts offer options for those already considering college but do little to encourage students who have not considered college.

Traditional college recruitment efforts are often limited to “college nights” at the local high school and are attended only by students who are already seriously involved in the college application process. Students who work after school have no opportunity to attend such events.

Even when such presentations are provided during regular school hours, the “outreach” too often involves an auditorium full of students. Contrast this approach to the recruitment of a prized-athlete who is treated to numerous phone calls, home visits and other one-on-one exchanges with recruiters, and you get a sense of the difference in recruitment priorities. While one can argue that intensive one-on-one recruitment efforts may be difficult to implement on a large scale, it is important to recognize that recruitment of nontraditional Latino students will require something other than the conventional approaches that have been available to date.

These old models of recruitment leave too many questions unanswered and issues unaddressed. For Latino families, the emphasis on the whole family is important. In the Latino culture, the individual is an extension of the whole. All decisions affect everyone and merit discussion by the family, or at least the parents.

Examples of creative recruitment strategies are available. The question is whether or not the will and commitment to change traditional recruitment methods exist in many institutions.

Part of the challenge to changing college recruitment practices lies in the conventional criteria used to identify prospective students. In many cases, the primary criterion is the student’s grade point average or score on a college entrance exam. Seldom are colleges involved in looking at multiple indicators of student potential.

Few colleges take into account whether pupils worked during high school or whether they are the first in the family to graduate or seek a post-secondary education. Both of these situations are indicators of perseverance, a quality probably as important in college as past academic preparation (Cortez, 1997).

Certain information should be reported to local communities served by those schools or colleges, policymakers who provide state and federal funding, and foundations that support these institutions. This information includes where and who colleges are recruiting and, more importantly, what success they are having. If we do not compile and disseminate this school and student recruitment information, how do we know what we have done and how well we are doing it?

Most existing recruitment models are not set up to be inclusive. This may again be reflective of a model that is based on the assumption that once a student graduates from high school and goes on to college, persistence becomes exclusively the student’s concern, a model incompatible with Latino family values. Creation of new approaches requires extensive input from local community leaders and parent representatives.

Support System and Financial Aid

It is not enough to recruit and enroll Latino pupils. One must ensure that these students have financial, academic, and psycho-social support mechanisms. For middle-class students, support in negotiating one’s way through post-secondary education may be available from the parent or a sibling. For first-time Latino enrollees, support and advocacy may need to be provided by support structures based at the post-secondary institution.

Work study programs provide students an opportunity to connect with the local community in either school-based internships or as part-time staff.

But the need to work also creates tension between intensified study and employment. While some Latino pupils may have had to balance school and part-time employment to get through high school, the challenges are compounded at the college level. Add to this the pressure that comes from needing money to pay basic college expenses like tuition and related costs such as books and fees, and the college part-time work experience quickly becomes indistinguishable from the high school job that generated weekend spending money. For many Latino students, the answer to the financial aspect of college is a combination of earned money and financial aid.

An important consideration in crafting financial aid packages is to recognize Latino families’ perceptions regarding long-term debt – a key feature of state and federal student loan programs. Latino families as a whole are reluctant about accumulating large or long-term debt to support college enrollment.

While the middle-class family may see it as an investment and may not be threatened with assumption of large-scale, long-term debt, many Latino families do not share this attitude. Middle-class families have experience with home mortgages, and new car debt and payment.

Many poorer families by contrast pay rent from month to month. If they purchase a car it is often a less expensive one paid for in cash or over a short repayment period. They have limited experience with credit; and in some cases bad experiences where unforeseen expenses led to credit-related problems. All this is said to stress the importance of families’ perspectives about loans in modifying or adapting traditional financial aid strategies.

This is not to say that loans should not be part of financial aid packages, but that packages that are heavily weighed toward loans may be reacted to in different ways by different groups. Success in having some Latino families accept such packages may require additional work that points out to the families how that loan note will be manageable within a larger income produced by being a college graduate.

Two- to Four-Year College Transitions

Research conducted about Latino students who enroll in college shows that approximately 50 percent enroll in two-year colleges. For those students who prefer to limit their post-secondary education, the two-year option addresses that preference. The data also indicate that for many Latino students the decision is based on an intent to begin their college enrollment at a two-year institution and transfer to a four-year college.

Research reveals however that too many community college pupils intending to transfer never achieve a successful transition. One observation suggests that many students are discouraged from remaining enrolled at the two-year college because of the remedial courses required that, after years of enrollment, result in limited transferable credit.

The fact that many first time college attendees have sacrificed short term improvements (often including such perceived basics as a first car, or a first apartment of one’s own) may be overlooked by universities that have built their intervention strategies for moderate income youth whose “hard” choices may involve delaying the purchase of the new car or moving to luxury condominiums. Collaborative efforts where community colleges can begin remediation efforts while students are still enrolled in high schools have shown potential to deal with this issue.

A second problem is a lack of articulation agreements between two- and four-year colleges, which compound the credit transfer issues. According to research of college graduation rates, two-year college students who transfer have substantially lower graduation rates than students who enroll only at four-year institutions. Analysis of factors that impact two year transfer students also suggests that the absence or inadequacy of transition support significantly impacts college transfer success.

Data on numbers of successful two- to four-year transfers and levels of graduation are seldom reported in most institutions. They are rarely if ever considered in states’ higher education accountability systems. As is the case in other areas of education, what is not counted is not reported and what is not reported does not matter.

Expanded Collaboration

Emerging research on inclusion of diverse students suggests that the challenges associated with increasing the success of Latino and other nontraditional students requires involvement by an expansive collaborative that includes the broader community.

For Latino and other minority pupils the need to include and involve community organizations is particularly critical in view of the lack of diversity often reflected in many institutions. Lacking grounding in the experiences and world views of the Latino populations, colleges and universities can benefit from the insights and contributions brought to the table by community representatives.

As importantly, the inclusion of community collaborators in Latino enrollment and completion efforts affords students the opportunity to connect with and provide a contribution to that community. This can contribute to the student’s sense of belonging and integration at both the college and local community levels. Additionally, the opportunity for students to connect with the realities of local community work requirements lend greater credence and relevance to the school and career connections.

Greater coordination and collaboration among the various levels in education, from elementary school through college graduation must occur. Creation of a seamless system that provides both academic and other ongoing transitional support offers the best hope for increasing Latino and other minority enrollment and graduation at the post-secondary level.

Although progress has been made, the data clearly shows that we have far to go before one can say that Latinos have achieved a level of parity in higher education. So long as public money is used to fund the majority of post-secondary institutions, it is appropriate to question the extent to which those institutions offer equitable and excellent educational opportunities to all of their constituencies.

Not until the numbers are reported and consequences are attached will the inclusion of minority pupils at all levels of the educational system rise above the level of platitudes and rhetoric. Isolated instances indicate that equitable access and completion are possible but not yet widespread. Continuation of that trend will be catastrophic for all of us.

Aggregate Household Income in Texas by Race/Ethnicity of Householder and Average Household Income in 1990, with Projections to 2030 under the Assumption of 1980-90 Rates of Net Migration




















Average Household Income



















































When aggregate household income is examined, the results show total aggregate income increasing from $216.5 billion in 1990 to $431.2 billion in 2030. This represents an increase of 99.1 percent, compared with a 119.9 percent increase in the number of households. As a result, average household income would decline from $35,667 in 1990 to $32,299 in 2030 (in 1990 dollars).

Source: Murdock, S.H., N. Hoque, M. Michael, S. White, and B, Pecotte. The Texas Challenge: Population Change and the Future of Texas (College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 1997) p. 63; p. 101.

Projected Percent of Public Elementary and Secondary Enrollment by Race/Ethnicity for 1990 to 2030 (1.0 Scenario)


The number of Texas residents enrolled in school (public and private) at both the elementary and secondary and the college levels will be extensive. Under the 1.0 scenario, which assumes a continuation of 1980 to 1990 levels of net migration, the number of elementary and secondary students will increase from 3,571,937 in 1990 to 5,738,843 in 2030, an increase of 60.7 percent from 1990 to 2030.

These results suggest that education will remain a major component of growth in Texas government in the coming years. Although this growth will be less at both the elementary and secondary and the college levels than the growth in total population, it will nevertheless be extensive. It will also increasingly involve minority students and growing numbers of participants in need-based programs. Although the overall growth in enrollment may be less than that in population, the total demand on resources may grow substantially. The results thus indicate that Texas will need to employ careful planning in elementary and secondary and in higher education to ensure that it can adequately address the needs for such services. Provision of adequate educational opportunities for all Texans is likely to continue to require extensive attention by the state in the coming years.

Source: Murdock, S.H., N. Hoque, M. Michael, S. White, and B, Pecotte. The Texas Challenge: Population Change and the Future of Texas (College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 1997) p. 148; p. 156; p. 158.


Cortez, A. “Criteria for Diversity: THEC’s Advisory Committee Suggests New Criteria,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, February 1997).

Johnson, R. “TEA’s School Leaver Codes: The Rest of the Story,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, October 2000).

Murdock, S.H, and N. Hoque, M. Michael, S. White, B. Pecotte. The Texas Challenge: Population Change and the Future of Texas (College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 1997).

Robledo, M. The Answer: Valuing Youth in Schools and Families (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, Summer 1989).

Supik, J.D. and R.L. Johnson. Missing: Texas Youth – Dropout and Attrition Rates in Texas Public High Schools (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, January 1999).

Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is division director of the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at

[©2001, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 2001 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.]