Efforts to narrow the enrollment gap

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Advocates for racial diversity on campus are heartened by the surge in Latino enrollment, but hesitant to proclaim victory. While the number of Latinos in higher education will increase steadily, the Educational Testing Service says those gains will not be in proportion to growth in the Latino population.

Experts cite legal and cultural obstacles as the cause. The University of Texas, Austin, for example, is subject to a 1996 decision by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that does not allow schools to consider race in admissions. Since 1996, Latino enrollment at Texas has dropped 1 percent. Similar restrictions exist in California and Florida. These three states account for nearly 60 percent of the US Latino population.

According to Ernesto Nieto, director of the National Hispanic Institute (NHI), there also are strong cultural factors behind Latinos' low enrollment. "Many Latino students don't have a college history from their parents that is a ready-made support system," he says. "And most have a money factor. They see the daily dynamic money plays at home and don't see how they could ask their parents to pay for college."

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Nevertheless, admissions offices, organizations like the NHI, and the government are responding in new ways to boost Latino admissions. Institutions unable to consider race in admissions are increasingly asking applicants to write about their life experience. And many are broadening their recruiting into lower-income school districts.

The NHI connects young people with college-student mentors and organizes week-long stays on college campuses. Over 21 years, such programs have helped NHI enroll 98 percent of its 400,000 students in college.

Nationally, the graduation rate of Latino high school students is 15 percent below that of African-Americans and whites. In response, the White House announced last week a set of initiatives to help Latinos more quickly achieve proficiency in English and gain access to good preschool programs.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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