Posted on Jul 21, 2003

Mayra Serna was determined to attend college so she could experience life outside of California. She spent months researching universities and colleges on the East Coast, but she didn't find her ideal school until a friend told her about Union College in Schenectady.

Serna, 18, is at Union this summer, before the start of her freshman year, for a five-week academic boot camp, taking classes in subjects such as study skills, math and English.

“I really like it. I like that it's a small school. I think that's going to help me stay on track,” said Serna, who plans to major in education this fall with the goal of becoming a teacher.

But census statistics show that the odds are against her. The number of Hispanics in New York state earning a college degree grew slightly between 1990 and 2000, from 9.3 percent to 11.5 percent. But Hispanics still lag far behind blacks and Asians, who are graduating from New York universities and colleges at the rates of 18.5 percent and 41 percent respectively.

Abe Lackman, president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, said policymakers are becoming more aware of the importance of getting students of color into college.

Yet the number of Hispanics attending area colleges varies by school. Minority students have made up 25 percent of the University at Albany's incoming freshman classes for the past 10 years, and one-third of them have been Hispanics. There are about 100 Hispanic students at Union — 5 percent of its total 2,000 student body — and at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute last fall, 240 of the college's 9,065 students or 2.6 percent were Hispanic.

Experts attribute the disparity in graduation rates to several factors, such as Hispanics living in areas with poor schools and a lack of resources.

“Part of it is the very high percentage of immigrants among Hispanics and … the background of these immigrants,” said John Logan, director of the Lewis Mumford Center at the University at Albany.

For instance, Asians tend to live in neighborhoods with high-performing public schools, while Hispanics migrate toward communities where schools aren't as good, Logan said.

But New York isn't the only state where many Hispanics aren't earning bachelor's degrees. California and Texas are facing the same challenge when it comes to graduating Hispanics from college, Logan said.

The problem, according to education experts, starts in the earlier grades. “You're not seeing high college graduation rates because you're not seeing high high school graduation rates,” said Maritza Vega, an associate in the office of higher education at the state Department of Education.

The dropout rate for Hispanics was 7.8 percent in the 1999-2000 school year, the latest numbers available from the state Education Department. The rate for white students was 2.2 percent, 3.1 for Asians and 6.2 for African-Americans.

“You're starting with a picture where majority of Hispanic students attend schools plagued with debilitating factors that will limit their success,” she said.

But some progress is being made. The state Board of Regents recently recommended the creation of a new program in which universities and colleges, schools, and community-based organizations work together to help Hispanic students succeed in education.

And the state Department of Education has developed the Companeros Education Collaborative of New York State — a statewide network of higher education, school districts, community-based organizations, churches, students and families — to help Latino students enroll in and graduate from college.

Skidmore College's Higher Education Opportunity Program — HEOP — is one example. The program gives students with strong academic and personal potential, or students who would otherwise not be able to attend college because of academic and economic disadvantages, the opportunity to pursue a college degree.

At UAlbany, the admissions staff actively seeks out minority students during its recruitment season “to make sure the student body reflects the New York state population,” said Lisa James Goldsberry, a university spokeswoman.

RPI is especially interested in seeing more Hispanics graduate from college.

In December, it received a $625,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to attract and enroll more Hispanic students in its doctoral program. Six new Hispanic students have been recruited since then, said Tom Apple, vice provost and dean of graduate education. The ultimate goal is to place the students in teaching positions.

But that program won't succeed without more Hispanics completing their undergraduate education. “It does make it difficult to recruit and makes it difficult to expand that pool of eligible Ph.D. candidates,” said Mark Smith, dean of students at RPI.

Experts say that enrolling Hispanics in college is only part of the solution. The other is getting them to succeed while there.

Jack Ling, director of diversity and affirmative action at Skidmore College, said it's important for universities and colleges to provide “hands-on care” to keep students from falling through the cracks.

Ling added that Skidmore's HEOP program intends to do just that. “If you accept these students in schools without a program like HEOP, they have a greater risk of not succeeding and you're setting them up to fail,” he said.

Serna said her experience with getting into college wasn't difficult, adding that there were plenty of resources to help Hispanic students “if you really look.”

“I've been able to find everything I need,” she said. “It's been easy for me. It wasn't a huge challenge just because I'm Hispanic.”

Nor is she daunted by grim college graduation statistics for Hispanics. “It only makes me want to graduate more and work harder,” she said.