Mexicans are the fifth-largest immigrant group in the city, and one of its fastest- growing, yet their record of academic achievement does not come close to keeping pace. Recent immigrants from Mexico over age 24 have the highest high school dropout rate and the lowest college graduation rate. And they account for less than 1% of the 200,000 City University of New York undergraduates.
So it was good news when CUNY signed an agreement recently with Mexico’s consul general to expand educational opportunities. If Mexican immigrants – indeed, all Latinos – are to share in the American Dream, they must have access to higher education and the skills needed for success in today’s competitive marketplace.
It is equally urgent for all Latinos to embrace the importance of higher education. Latinos often view early employment, rather than education, as the primary means to socioeconomic advancement. They must understand that a college degree is far more valuable in the long run, increasing the prospect of financial security and opening doors to more rewarding careers.
Social and economic conditions, especially in poor neighborhoods with low-performing schools, contribute to low educational attainment among Latinos. A more equitable distribution of resources, from elementary school through college, is needed. But other factors also cause ethnic disparities in academic achievement.
As a young man, I learned hard lessons about the barriers Hispanic youth are up against. I was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Harlem, and my parents were happy when I got a job at a bank after graduating from high school. But I wanted more, and I worked my way through college and graduate school. There are countless students who need only motivation and proper preparation to tear down the walls of mediocrity that confine them.
Almost half of Latino undergraduates attend public two-year colleges where tuition is substantially lower than at four-year institutions. Besides their affordability, community colleges offer a range of support programs that four-year colleges would do well to emulate.
Summer and weekend immersion programs for incoming freshmen, combining academic instruction, tutoring and group support, are extremely important, as are ongoing advisement, ESL and developmental skills instruction, and peer and professional mentoring. We also must take advantage of federally and state-funded collaborative programs designed to encourage disadvantaged students to attend and succeed in college.
Programs that raise parents’ consciousness and the educational levels are also key. When parents understand an academic subject and are more connected with their children’s school experiences, they are better equipped to help with their kids’ academic pursuits.
There is no single cure. But the Latino community must raise the bar on academic achievement, and do it now.
Perez is president of Borough of Manhattan Community College.