Big dreams, big hurdles for Hispanic students seeking college

Oscar Corral in his guitar class.
Oscar Corral reads music in his intro to guitar class at Inver Hills Community College on Nov. 21.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Oscar Corral always expected he'd earn a college degree, and when he moved to the United States from Mexico at age 16 that dream didn't change. If anything, he believed his college prospects would be brighter here.

He didn't anticipate high school counselors would urge him to not bother taking the ACT or tell him that he would never be able to afford college. When he did make it to college, he didn't expect to confront cultural and academic challenges to graduation that many students of color face but that don't often get discussed.

Now in his third year at Inver Hills Community College, Corral recently changed his major for the third time, from engineering to political science and social justice, tacking on another year and pushing back his graduation further. The 22-year-old said had he received more information about college preparation and guidance before graduating high school, he would have realized his passion for social justice much sooner, saving him time and money.

"Me getting into college, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do," Corral said.

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Corral's story is a familiar one to those who study the struggles of students of color trying to get into college and succeed there.

Often, they don't get the guidance they need in high school, leaving them unprepared for college. When they do make it to college, high costs, unbalanced expectations and a tough time finding other students like them on campus are all factors that play out against them, said Minerva Muñoz, director of TRIO Student Support Services, part of a national program that helps disadvantaged students succeed in college and bridges the achievement gap.

"They go through this kind of dissonance when they get here, not feeling like they belong," Muñoz said.

Data show how difficult that transition can be. Since 2008, Hispanic students have more than doubled their enrollment numbers in Minnesota colleges and universities. But graduating with a degree is another matter.

For instance, 41 percent of Hispanic students in Minnesota who started at a two-year institution in 2011 had graduated after three years. The other 59 percent had dropped out by that point, transferred or pushed graduation back. Sixty-six percent of white students graduate from four-year colleges within six years, but just 54 percent of Hispanic students graduate.

Experts say graduation rates are the best indication of how the achievement gap between white and minority students that starts in grade school later manifests in higher education.

In Minnesota, American Indian students have the lowest rates, next to black, Asian and Hispanic students. The on-time high school graduation rate for Hispanic students in Minnesota was 69 percent in 2015, about 20 percentage points lower than white students. Minnesota has the largest high school graduation gap between Hispanic and white students compared to other states.

Corral had a particularly challenging path in high school. At 16 and new to the country, he was sent back to ninth grade so he could learn English. When it came time to start looking into colleges, his counselor told him not to bother because he would have a hard time paying tuition.

Corral and his younger brother, who's at the University of Minnesota, researched colleges and admission requirements on their own, and only ended up taking the ACT college entrance exam because they heard classmates talking about it. Corral said they were never told about ACT preparation classes or post-secondary enrollment options, a program popular in Minnesota that lets eligible students earn college credit while still in high school and can save needy students thousands of dollars in future college tuition.

Paying for college is the single biggest barrier keeping Latino students from graduating on time or at all, said Jens Manuel-Krogstad, a researcher at the Pew Research Center. "We asked Latinos in one of our surveys why they dropped out of college. The most common response they gave us was they had to start working."

Hispanic students sometimes feel obligated to start working, cutting their education short or forcing them to drop out and save money, he said.

Corral said societal pressures make many young Hispanics choose work instead of college, and he has lots of friends who took that route. But he says white students often turn that fact into a negative stereotype of Hispanics — "this label of like, 'Oh, you're Mexican so you're already predestined to do this stuff. People believe that."

Corral said he is especially aware of these stereotypes because he is "white-passing" due to the light color of his skin. But when his classmates and teachers hear his accent, he watches the change in how they treat him.

"Once they realize I'm Latino," he said. "Their attitudes change toward me. So, they start ignoring me more, and I don't think they do enough to engage with me or any other students to really help."

He said many people don't bother to try and understand where he's coming from and what it took to get this far in college, and the sacrifices required to keep going.

Before each semester starts, Corral tells his parents that he might drop out and work to save enough to pay for a full year. That way he wouldn't have to constantly worry about making ends meet. Right now, Corral relies on a few grants and scholarships to get by, but when he registers for classes each semester he asks himself, "How am I going to pay for this?"

Financial aid for Hispanic students is usually more robust in the first and second year of college, and funds start to fizzle out as time goes on, said Muñoz with the U's Upward Bound program. For low-income Hispanic students at four-year universities, Pell grant money starts to run out after five or six years, and students need to pay for school out of pocket if they take longer to graduate, she said.

"They now maybe have to work three jobs to make this happen — makes it seem so impossible that students do stop," she said. "Latino students who aren't able to finish up in two, three, four or even five years ... you just can't pay for school. It's impossible to pay for it out of pocket."

Oscar Corral has made the impossible manageable for the last few years, but it's getting tougher, he said. He works 25 hours a week at a sandwich shop and it all goes to tuition. Throughout college he's also worked odd jobs evenings and weekends, like catering events, cleaning buildings after hours and washing medical scrubs through a staffing agency. He had to turn down a job as an organizer for the DFL party this semester because the program required him to work 60 hours per week.

The decision to come back for a third year wasn't easy, Corral said. It meant losing funds from TuitionMatch-MN, a program that gives $3 for every $1 a student sets aside for tuition. That money dries up after two years and was Corral's biggest source of tuition money. Now he is left to come up with that and the rest of the cost on his own.

His parents help where they can, with money for gas and a room in their house, but it's not easy. Corral's father, the family bread-winner, fixes cars out of their garage like he used to do in their hometown in Mexico.

"My dream school is the U of M, but at the same time, I know that I might not be able to afford it," Corral said, noting that it's a financial challenge for his brother who's there now. Corral said he's planning to attend Augsburg because of its richer racial diversity and wider financial aid options.

Working during college is difficult for many students, and it takes valuable focus away from studies and makes it hard to find time for an internship or other important resume-building experiences, Muñoz said.

"They've always had one foot in and one foot out in a sense, because they've been navigating two cultures," Muñoz said. "Whereas their white middle-class counterparts get to fully immerse, not thinking about any of those things."

The students of color who succeed in white institutions are the ones who manage to find friends and mentors with their same background or race, Muñoz said. Those who don't often dropout. This can be especially difficult for many low-income Latino students who aren't able to have the full college experience that involves living on campus, joining a fraternity or sorority, partying and making connections.

Latino students on college campuses are banding together around the Latino community and petitioning to uphold Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a policy started by President Barack Obama protecting certain young immigrants from immediate deportation.

But finding a community on campus is still not enough to close the persistent gap between Latinos and whites in college, Muñoz said.

"Even though we know that low-income students have it hard, that they have a tendency to dropout when it gets harder," she said, "we're still going to put up all these roadblocks."

Closing the graduation gap in college needs to start when those students are younger, researcher say. The on-time high school graduation rate for Hispanic students in Minnesota was 69 percent in 2015,which is about 20 percent lower than white students. Minnesota has the largest high school graduation gap between Hispanic and white students compared to other states.

While graduation rates aren't the best indication of how many Hispanics are getting degrees, experts say the concerns reflected in the data are real and Hispanic high school students still need better college preparation and resources. And then with consistent financial aid programs, more Minnesota Hispanics could be on track to leave college with a degree in-hand.

Oscar's story, in his own words