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Latinos put new demands on colleges

By Noel PaulSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 20, 2000

When Maria Hernandez was a senior in high school, she had top grades, a world of talent - and, like many first-generation Latino Americans, no expectation of going to college.

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"I was already working for a bank and I thought, 'Well, I'll just keep working full time and help support my family,' " says Ms. Hernandez. But a teacher persuaded her to send out applications at the last minute. She plans on graduating from Chicago's DePaul University next spring.

For many Latino Americans who excel in high school, college is not a foregone conclusion - family and financial concerns often come first.

But that is changing. According to the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., by 2015, the number of Latinos entering college will have increased by 1 million, surpassing African-Americans as the second-largest racial or ethnic student group. Educators worry that colleges and universities have been caught off guard, and could fail to meet Latino students' most vital needs, ranging from faculty mentors to courses in Latino studies.

"The issue of the influx of Hispanic students is one that has been long neglected," says Jamie Merisotis, director of the Institute of Higher Education Policy in Washington. "We've known for a long time that a coming tidal wave driven by Hispanics was on the horizon, but colleges and universities aren't ready for it."

As institutions scramble to retool their student services, educators are realizing that the path to diversity on college campuses is dotted with roadblocks.

Set among rows of brownstone apartments on Chicago's North Side, DePaul has long been committed to enrolling Chicago's first-generation students.

With Chicago's Latino population booming, and DePaul's student body following suit, the school has responded aggressively, launching a mentorship program for students with local Latino business leaders, a Latino peer adviser program, and new courses in Latino studies.

The university also has been commended for working with Latino high school students before they enroll in college. The multiyear effort lets them attend DePaul on weekends to build their comfort level with campus life.

"We've always had a symbiotic relationship with the city," says DePaul's president, the Rev. John Minogue. "So we do our best to reach out to Chicago's students and give them a knowledge base of what college life is all about here."

Despite these efforts, Hernandez still cites DePaul's lack of faculty diversity - 24 Latinos out of 504 professors - as a serious problem for her peers.

"There just isn't any diversity in the faculty. I'm not saying a white male cannot encourage me up there, but it would make us really proud to have a Latino to look up to at the head of the classroom."

The problem is not unique to DePaul: Latinos account for only 2.4 percent of all instructional faculty nationwide. Dr. Rafaela Weffer, DePaul's associate vice president for academic affairs, says it might be generations before Latinos have proportional representation in faculty.

"The Latino population is the youngest in the United States. They are underrepresented at most levels in education," Weffer says. "And Latino families are generally very strong. Women students in particular would be more reluctant to weaken the family's cohesion in a way that might come with pursuing a PhD."