Ensuring the Success of Latino College Students
Latinos are Rhode Island’s fastest growing ethnic group,1 and one in five school-age children (K-12) in the state is Latino.2 Yet Latino students often lag behind their non-Latino peers. The college graduation rate among Rhode Island Latino students (44%) is significantly lower than for white students (59%), an “equity gap” of 15 percentage points.2 Research is needed to understand why the gap between white and Latino students exists and what policies and programs can help improve it.
Ensuring that the state’s growing Latino population succeeds in college is important to cultivating a well-educated workforce for Rhode Island’s future.
Only 20% of adult Latinos in Rhode Island have an associate degree or higher3 and more than a third (35%) do not have a high school diploma or GED.1 Given the projection that 61% of jobs in Rhode Island will require a college degree by 2018, lower college completion rates among Latino students are cause for concern.4
Fig. 1 Education Level by Race & Ethnicity
Source: Lumina Foundation (2017).3
Fig. 2 Educational Attainment by Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration, 2006-2010
Source: PolicyLink (2013).5
Fig. 3 Young People Who Do Not Have a High School Degree and Are Not Pursuing One
Source: PolicyLink (2013).5
To better understand the factors that contribute to or detract from college success among Latinos in Rhode Island, we conducted in-depth interviews with 30 Latino students at the state’s public institutions of higher education.6 We asked participants about their college experiences, involvement in college access and preparation programs, college search and choice processes, primary and secondary educational experiences, family histories, and plans for the future.
Our interview sample included 18 students from the University of Rhode Island (URI), 8 from Rhode Island College (RIC), and 4 from the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI).(a) Participants were full-time students between the ages of 18 and 23 who had attended high school in Rhode Island. Twenty were women and 10 were men. Their major choices were diverse, ranging from business to professional programs, from social sciences to the arts.
(a) To protect participants’ privacy, all names used in this article are pseudonyms.
Fig. 4 Interview Sample
Our research suggests that there are three major sources of stress for Latino college students in Rhode Island: adjustment to social and academic life on campus, family issues, and financial concerns. These challenges can inhibit students’ academic performance, harm their mental health, and even lead them to drop out of school. While many students are persevering in spite of these obstacles, others are struggling to succeed. When Latino students do not reach their full educational and career potential, it hinders Rhode Island’s social and economic future.
A smooth transition to college is an important predictor of retention and overall success.7 Adjusting to campus life can be difficult for any incoming student, however, Latinos often face additional hurdles adapting to an environment very different from the one in which they grew up.8 Most students we interviewed reported attending majority-minority high schools and living in predominantly minority neighborhoods surrounded by fellow Latinos. In contrast, URI is 7% Latino and RIC is 9% Latino. On entering these campuses, students reported feeling like a “minority” for the first time in their lives.
Fig. 5 Latino Enrollment at Rhode Island Colleges
Source: Excelencia in Education.2
The discomfort of being one of few students of color is only heightened when a student feels less academically prepared than their white peers. A lack of preparation can result in feelings of isolation and exclusion. Some students we interviewed who were social and confident in high school and had been active in class discussions reported that the cultural capital and strengths they possessed, such as being able to speak Spanish, were not valued in college. In contrast, Latino students who came to college from private high schools reported having an easier transition, both socially and academically, since they were used to predominately white environments and a rigorous curriculum.
Cultural & Social Challenges in the College Transition
At URI, the challenges of cultural and academic transition are exacerbated by the overall size of the university and its large introductory classes, which heighten some Latino students’ feelings of being overwhelmed and disconnected from the college community. Large classes prevented student respondents from building the kinds of meaningful connections with professors that most of them yearned for and that are vitally important to a positive and successful college experience.9 Another challenge to building student-faculty relationships was the perceived cultural distance of professors and their lack of understanding about the experiences and backgrounds of Latino students. Overall, many students seem to lack the mentorship and personal interest from professors that helped put them on the path to success during high school.(b)
(b) Most respondents who reported having few interactions with professors in large introductory classes developed closer relationships with them once they declared their majors and moved up to smaller, discussion-based classes.
Our interviews suggest that students at RIC may have an easier time with the cultural transition to college, although they face some of the same academic challenges as students from URI. While about half of the respondents from RIC found the transition to college to be academically challenging, they generally did not mention class size as a problem and they reported having good relationships with at least some professors. The relative ease of the cultural transition for RIC students could be due to the campus’s proximity to Providence, slightly more diverse student body, or higher rate of commuter students who continue to live in their old homes and neighborhoods. However, some students said RIC felt “too close” to home, inhibiting their full engagement with college life. Respondents from RIC generally reported less involvement in campus organizations than at URI.
Although going to a community college like CCRI does not entail the same type of transition as a four-year, residential institution, it is still critical that students have a good experience that puts them on the road to transferring, which all the students we interviewed from CCRI planned to do. The students reported feeling well prepared academically and had positive experiences with their professors, who they found to be supportive and understanding.
Academic Challenges in the College Transition
In an effort to ease the transition to college life, programs such as Talent Development (TD) at URI, Learning for Life at RIC, and Connect to College at CCRI offer a range of services to students of color, including summer orientation programs, peer mentors, and specialized academic advising.10 These programs provide a network of fellow students of color and serve as important buffers for students navigating the culture shock of the college transition.(c) For example, almost every student we interviewed from URI reported that TD played a large role in easing their transition. College access programs that students participated in during high school, such as College Visions and Upward Bound, continued to be important to their college transitions as well, particularly among RIC students.
Students also negotiate their new environment by joining or forming cultural organizations on campus. Some of the multicultural groups mentioned by students we interviewed include Seeds of Success, Brothers on a New Direction, the Management Club, Latin American Student Association (LASA), Peer Advocates, the PINK (Powerful, Independent, Notoriously Knowledgeable) initiative for multicultural women, Cape Verdean Student Association (CVSA), Latin Dance Team, a Latino fraternity, and the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA).
Cultural organizations and transition programs like TD were a vital lifeline for the Latino students we interviewed. Most of the students in our sample participated in college access and persistence programs in both high school and college and largely credit these programs for helping them navigate the college application, enrollment, and transition processes. On-campus programs help to counteract feelings of loneliness and isolation, encourage campus engagement, and offer support when instances of discrimination occur on campus. However, as critical as these programs are, they cannot change the overall environment present at the schools.
(c) Some Latino students may not be eligible to participate in certain programs, like CCRI’S Connect to College, because of their immigration status.
The Importance of Connecting with Other Students of Color
Family: Comfort and Obligation
Family support can be a critical contributor to college success among Latino students.7 For many, families are a source of strength and encouragement, even if their ability to help is limited by having little personal experience with college themselves.11 Almost all our respondents had families that were extremely supportive of their college enrollment, but few had parents or siblings who had attended college and therefore could assist with the application process or the transition to college. Many students end up navigating the college process on their own, or with guidance from college access programs and high school advisors.
Despite these limitations, many Latino parents offer support where they can and some make huge personal and financial sacrifices to send their kids to college. They try to learn as much as possible about the admissions process despite language barriers. One student’s family lives in a one-bedroom apartment so they can afford for her to live on campus, while another’s mother outed herself as an undocumented immigrant so her son could fill out his financial aid forms correctly.
Family Support & Its Limitations
While many families offer vital support where possible, they can also be a source of stress for students. Some students we interviewed reported feeling guilty for draining their families’ limited resources or not contributing enough financially. Many students need to work to support their families or to decrease the financial burden of their tuition. Others have to provide caretaking for children or older family members. Students also deal with stressful family issues such as health problems, strained relationships, domestic violence, and immigration issues.
Financial & Familial Obligations Interact
Students’ relationships with their families can vary depending on whether they live on campus or at home.(d) Living on campus can provide some distance from stressful family situations and responsibilities and allow students to focus more on schoolwork. Despite some of the cultural challenges discussed previously, most students who lived on campus reported that they enjoyed the freedom and access to resources it afforded them. However, many students feel the cultural pull of family life and a need to connect regularly with their families, whether that means going home on weekends or calling frequently.
(d) Most respondents from URI had lived on campus at some point during their college careers, though most upperclassmen moved off campus sophomore or junior year. Three RIC students were currently living on campus, three had never lived on campus, and two had but had moved off campus by the time of our interviews.
How Living on Campus Compares to Commuting
By far the most prominent barrier to college success, expressed by almost all our respondents, was financial struggles. Financial stressors weigh heavily on the minds of Latino students. While many receive scholarships, they are rarely enough to cover all expenses, so most students work to pay for tuition, books, and living costs (and sometimes to support their families, as mentioned above). Almost all our respondents had jobs, with some working 30 or 40 hours a week while maintaining a full courseload.
Fig. 6 Work Responsibilities of Students in Our Sample
Some students have had remarkable successes with very limited financial resources. For example, one URI student we interviewed maintains a 3.2 GPA while working 40 hours a week. However, this resilience comes at a cost, and some students are unable to maintain their grades due to long work hours. One RIC student struggled academically as she worked 35 hours a week her first year and 20 hours a week her sophomore year. She is currently on academic probation and in jeopardy of losing her scholarship, which would exacerbate her financial situation further. In addition to its impact on academic performance, the need to work long hours can interfere with opportunities for unpaid internships, volunteer work, or campus activities that can advance students’ careers.
Balancing Work & School
Beyond the day-to-day stress of money, many students are acutely aware of the sacrifices their families are making to send them to college and the financial burden it creates. Financial stress can lead Latino students to be overly concerned about fulfilling parents’ academic expectations and getting a “return” on their investment. The obligation students feel to ensure their families’ sacrifices are worthwhile makes the consequences of a bad grade even more dire, exacerbating anxiety and thus affecting performance in a vicious cycle.
These financial pressures can influence various decisions students make about college. Many see college as a means to an end to help their families as opposed to a time of self-exploration and discovery. Some major in an area they are not passionate about but they believe will be financially lucrative. Others choose a less expensive school or try to finish as quickly as possible. Some students commute instead of living on campus, which our interviews suggest decreases their campus engagement, their exposure to campus social life, and their access to on-campus resources.
How Financial Pressures Shape College Decisions
Opportunities for Intervention
During our interviews we asked Latino students what supports and resources could help them succeed in college. Three main intervention points emerged, which reflect the three primary challenges discussed above.
Greater institutional support for Latino students and their needs. Many students we interviewed discussed how important peer and professor networks were to their academic and personal success. Universities might explore changes such as greater funding and support for cultural organizations, smaller class sizes for first-year students, and efforts to promote diversity and cultural competency among professors and staff.
Education and outreach to Latino students and their families. A top concern among our respondents was the need for more education for Latino families on the college application, enrollment, and transition process. This includes offering information in Spanish and to diverse populations within the Latino community, particularly undocumented immigrants. College preparatory programs could build connections with parents during high school and universities could explore ways to increase family engagement once students are on campus, such as through parent-specific orientations.11
Increased financial support and opportunities for work and career advancement. The financial stress facing low-income students can hold them back academically and professionally. Long work hours leave less time for studying, internships, volunteer work, and campus activities. Universities might consider unique solutions like partnering with local businesses to offer paid internships or providing work-study opportunities that allow students to work with professors. In addition to easing students’ financial burdens, these programs could encourage relationships with faculty and local businesses that can enrich students’ academic experience and post-college career possibilities.11
Helping Latino Students Succeed in College
This study sought to better understand the experiences of Latino students at public colleges and universities in Rhode Island. Our research indicates that very capable and resourceful students may not be reaching their full potential due to the barriers they face. In spite of supportive families and critical programs, these students are navigating an often arduous college experience mostly on their own. They struggle with adjusting to college life, ongoing family stressors, and financial strain, challenges that can hinder their academic success, their personal well-being, and their future educational and career opportunities.
Our research suggests that Rhode Island’s college access and persistence programs are a vital lifeline to combat these challenges. Preparatory programs such as College Visions and The College Crusade of Rhode Island and on-campus programs such as Talent Development (URI), Learning for Life (RIC), and Connect to College (CCRI) are critical in helping Latino students get to and stay in college.12 Without this assistance, the success of Latino students may be in jeopardy, so continued funding and support for these initiatives is critical. Universities and the state may also want to consider expanding or launching new programs to provide greater support for Latino students and their unique needs, increased education and outreach to Latino their families, and new opportunities for students to earn income while building their careers.
Rhode Island’s economic future depends on a well-educated workforce. With support and resources, the state’s fastest growing ethnic group, Latinos, can obtain greater educational and career success and help contribute to economic growth.
1. Latino Policy Institute (2013) “Work in Progress: Latinos in the RI Workforce,” Bristol, RI: Roger Williams University.
2. Excelencia in Education (n.d.) “Latino College Completion: Rhode Island,” Retrieved October 6, 2017.
3. Lumina Foundation (2017) A Stronger Nation: Learning beyond high school builds American talent – Rhode Island’s Report, Indianapolis, IN.
4. Carnevale, Anthony P., Nicole Smith, and Jeff Strohl (2010) Help wanted: Projections of jobs and education requirements through 2018: State-Level Analysis, Washington, DC: Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.
5. PolicyLink (2013) An Equity Profile of Rhode Island, Oakland, CA.
6. This study builds on prior research on improving college outcomes for Latinos, as well as college access and persistence programs in Rhode Island, including: Dowcett, Kathleen (2015) Minding the Gap: Increasing College Persistence in Rhode Island, Providence, RI: Providence Children and Youth Cabinet; and RI Data Hub (n.d.) “An Introduction to RI’s College Access and Persistence Programs,” Providence, RI: The Providence Plan, Retrieved October 6, 2017.
7. Hurtado, Sylvia, Deborah Faye Carter, and Albert Spuler (1996) “Latino Student Transition to College: Assessing Difficulties and Factors in Successful College Adjustment,” Research in Higher Education, 37: 2.
8. Nuñez, Anne-Marie (2009) “Latino Students' Transitions to College: A Social and Intercultural Capital Perspective,” Harvard Educational Review, 79(1): 22-48.
9. Komarraju, Meera, Sergey Mulsulkin, and Gargi Bhattacharya (2010) “Role of Student-Faculty Interaction in Developing College Students’ Academic Self-Concept, Motivation, and Achievement,” Journal of College Student Development, 51(3): 332-342.
10. Dowcett (2015).
11. Liu, Michelle Camacho (2012) “Ensuring Latino Success in College and the Workforce,” Washington, DC: National Conference of State Legislatures.
12. Our study confirms the findings on the importance of college preparatory and access programs in RI Data Hub (n.d.).
Type of Research