Iowa State educators address Latino college success in national policy brief, research

AMES, Iowa -- Latinos are the nation's fastest growing minority group according to the latest U.S. Census data. Yet Laura Rendón is concerned by research -- most notably a study by University of Texas, San Antonio professor Ray Padilla -- showing that Latinos experience low levels of attainment at all educational levels.

A professor and chair of Iowa State University's educational leadership and policy studies (ELPS) program, Rendón says that news should be sobering in Iowa, where state education officials just reported that public school enrollment is expected to grow for the first time in a dozen years -- largely because of climbing birth rates among Hispanic families. According to the Iowa Department of Education, there has been a 109.3 percent increase in Latino enrollment between the 1999-2000 and 2007-08 school years.

That's why Rendón and ELPS researchers are working to improve Latinos' chances of experiencing educational success. She led an ELPS team which collaborated with the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education on a policy brief that provides schools and colleges recommendations on how they can make Latino college success a realizable goal.

"We've got the (Latino) demography and we've got the people coming in, but we now need to make sure that this population is well-educated," said Rendón, the keynote speaker at October's "Strengthening and Valuing Latino/a Communities: An Iowa Conference." "We do not want to have a new citizenry comprised of uneducated individuals who are not able to contribute to the American society -- those who are not able to be leaders. We want to educate all of these individuals so they can participate fully in all that America has to offer. That means we have to start exposing Latino families to all the educational opportunities that are available."

Four ELPS authors of policy brief

Doctoral student Jessica Ranero was also one of the brief's four ELPS authors, contributing results of research she is conducting with ISU assistant professor Ryan Gildersleeve that centers on improving the education of Iowa's growing Latino population.

ELPS doctoral students José Cabrales, Jr. and Philip Vasquez joined Rendón, Ranero and Amaury Nora, professor and editor of the Review of Higher Education at the University of Houston, as authors of the brief. It was distributed nationally to all Hispanic-Serving Institutions and other targeted organizations interested in addressing the needs of Hispanic students.

The authors made these recommendations:

  • Federal and state governments, as well as foundations, should continue to support comprehensive college access assistance programs such as Gear Up, TRIO and ENLACE. They urged that these programs not stop in high school, but recommended that they continue at least into the first two years of college.
  • K-12 schools should develop a "Planning for College" course for students and families to address important college-related issues. In addition, free or low-cost tutoring and test preparation programs should be provided.
  • Faculty and guidance counselors in schools and colleges should be properly trained to advise Latino students and facilitate their success. The brief provided guidelines for advisers to follow, taking students from middle school through college.
  • Two- and four-year institutions should develop a Center for Student Success -- a one-stop destination where low-income, first-generation students can get all the information they need to navigate their way through college.
  • Faculty, especially those in Hispanic-Serving Institutions, should be trained to:

    *Replicate the elements of learning communities within the classroom -- such as close faculty and student interactions, familia (student groups of 4-5 students who work together for one or two semesters) writing models, reflective practices, culturally relevant learning experiences and community service learning.

    *Mentor and guide Latino students with the information needed to succeed.

    *Employ validation theory as a way to support, encourage and affirm Latino students as capable knowers and valid members of the college learning community.

Iowa new frontier for Latino families

Rendón says improving upon Latinos educational outcomes is critical to Iowa, which she calls a new frontier for Latino families.

"They're coming to Iowa to work in meat-packing and agriculture and chicken processing, etc.," Rendón said. "These folks, interestingly, are not likely to go back to Mexico or Central America. They want to stay. And what that is doing for Iowa is adding to its population, but also to the number of workers who are available to take jobs in areas where we need them. So the education of this new population is vital to the state's future. In the future, we also want Latinos to be state leaders with college degrees."

In their study, Ranero and Gildersleeve have identified rural Iowa towns that have undergone a significant ethnic population change and interviewed middle school administrators regarding the college-going process for Latino immigrants. They are continuing to conduct outreach within the Latino community to better understand its needs regarding higher education.

Ranero said the study is ongoing, with hopes of creating progressive dialogue among teachers, Latino parents, students and administrators to reach attainable college access solutions.