In the United States, 82% of Latino students graduate from high school. But compared to Latino students, twice as many white students earn bachelor’s or graduate degrees.
While Colorado has one of the nation’s most highly educated populations, only a quarter of Hispanic residents have a college credential, the lowest among all groups. Just 41% of Hispanic men at Colorado’s public four-year universities make it to graduation, according to recent federal data. At community colleges, less than a third graduate.
Unfortunately, this data is not surprising as we continue to see research on the pressures put on our Latino young men, who lead families while balancing jobs and community obligations. However, I see a brighter and sustainable path for our Latino males to advance — in part because I have lived that same journey.
As an immigrant from El Salvador, my father — who had been a computer programmer in our home country — found tree trimming and landscaping work. At first, I followed in his footsteps, working with my hands in various jobs.
Then, after working as a swim instructor, I realized I loved to teach. But to teach, I had to go to school. So I enrolled in community college but stopped when I got an office job. Until a friend spoke some memorable words: “Don’t settle, Ismar, get your college degree.” Eventually, I earned my bachelor’s degree, then my master’s. I taught multicultural and multilingual students like the young person I once was.
Today, my passion is to help people — especially Latino and English-language-learner students — understand that education is the great equalizer. I ultimately joined Western Governors University, an online higher education institution whose unique approach to education makes it more accessible to students from all backgrounds.
I see the same drive I had in the faces of young Latino men. I see a strong work ethic mixed with a commitment to familia and communidad. I see the passion to work hard, but the feeling of being somehow stuck in a rut with no opportunity to advance. We must feed their drive with education, backed by continued support from family and community.
I’ve observed five obstacles that make it difficult for many Latino students to earn a degree:
1. First-generation students/lack of college culture: Nearly half of Latino students are the first in their families to attend college.
2. Lack of English language or academic skills: In parts of the U.S., one in three families have limited English, making it harder to achieve in school and join college-bound programs.
3. Family pressures: During the pandemic, Latino college enrollment dropped by 7% as many students helped support the family economically or care for family members.
4. Financial constraints: Many Latino students enter college as low-income students. Most work more than 30 hours a week to finance their education. Yet Latinos receive the lowest amounts of financial aid among all ethnic groups.
5. Lack of mentorship: Some students, especially first-generation students, lack a social network to provide guidance and support for challenges along the way.
Whether you are born in the U.S. or elsewhere, whether English or another language is your mother tongue, whether you support a family or live on your own, a degree can be accessible. At schools like WGU, a competency-based approach means you can get credit for your life experience. You can complete the degree as fast as you want — or take the time you need. You are assigned a mentor who gets to know you and helps you find solutions to your challenges. And you can do all this while achieving an undergraduate degree for less than $20,000 total.
That investment is well worth it because education is the surest path to a more prosperous future. Bachelor’s degree-holders earn 67% more than those with a high school diploma. Individuals with a bachelor’s degree have median earnings of $32.62 per hour, compared to $19.52 with a high school diploma. Over a lifetime, that’s a difference of nearly $2.5 million — enough to pay for a home, educate your kids and fund your retirement. And it’s enough to remind yourself that you didn’t settle but instead opened the door to doing so much more.
All immigrants come to this country for a better life, “para triumfar” or to succeed. I believe higher education is the gateway to achieve that success. There are pathways to get there if we rally behind our young men.
Ismar Vallecillos is the northwest regional director for Western Governors University.
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