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Achieving Equity for Latino Students: Expanding the Pathway to Higher Education through Public Policy

reviewed by Mary Louise Gomez - November 17, 2011

coverTitle: Achieving Equity for Latino Students: Expanding the Pathway to Higher Education through Public Policy
Author(s): Frances Contreras
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 080775210X, Pages: 208, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com

Dense with statistics concerning how U.S. policies, K-12 schools, and institutions of higher education are failing Latino/a students, this text also offers compelling stories from undergraduates struggling to achieve a college education.  Frances Contreras has woven a cogent argument for how and why public policy has developed to constrain college attendance and graduation for Latino/a youth. Contreras reframes the so-called achievement gap as a K-12 opportunity-to-learn gap grounded in inequitable and inhospitable schooling practices. She untangles a web of factors contributing to a leaking educational pipeline that most harms students who are English Language Learners (ELLs)—including a paucity of highly qualified teachers; poor school facilities and a lack of excellent curricular materials; many teachers’ negative perceptions of Latinos/as’ intellectual talent and motivation; low levels of teacher interactions with Latino/a families; and a lack of school staff who either speak Spanish or can effectively teach ELLs.

The text contains 7 chapters focusing on: U. S. public policy and its deficient investment in laws, strategies, and practices that would facilitate a more educated Latino/a citizenry and workforce; paths to college and graduation rates; the effects of high-stakes assessment on Latino/a students; financial aid and tuition policies for Latino/a students; undocumented youth and the pursuit of higher education; anti-affirmative action policies as played out in California and Washington; and how to raise the achievement of Latino/a students. Among the most powerful chapters are Chapter Five concerning undocumented youth and the challenges they face in navigating financial and interpersonal barriers to college attendance and Chapter Six focusing on anti-affirmative action policies and how they affect college access for Latinos/as.

Chapter Five is a particularly inviting text; in it, Contreras draws on a research project she conducted in 2008-2009 with 20 undocumented Latino/a college students (8 women and 12 men). She conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews with participants, most of whom had immigrated from Mexico with their parents and were attending a variety of post-secondary institutions of higher education: a Research 1 campus, a regional 4-year institution, and 6 community colleges. Others had immigrated from a variety of nations—EL Salvador, Argentina, Nicaragua, and Columbia. Contreras sought to understand how students “1079” status affected their college attendance. 1079 is the number of the Washington legislation that allows youth who have lived in the state of Washington for a minimum of 3 years and have graduated from high school to pay in-state tuition in that state. She also wanted to ascertain how student experiences differed across various institutions, and what implications there are for policies and institutional practices from students’ experiences. All students were high-achieving and participated in community service.

Five key findings emerged from this study. First, students needed to negotiate blatant racism in their K-12 schooling to achieve high school graduation and college attendance. Second, fear of discovery of their undocumented status and the resulting separation of family members was a continual presence in their lives.

Further, their experiences in higher education often mirrored those in their K-12 schooling with racism being a prominent aspect of their experiences. However, there also were notably encouraging and caring persons, most often found in campus support services for underrepresented youth. Financial concerns also compelled students to work long hours and sometimes multiple jobs unless they were able to obtain private scholarships. Contreras also found that a will to persist, or ganas, was a prominent feature across participants’ lives. Regardless of numerous barriers, all were determined to achieve their dreams and looked forward to contributing to greater service to their communities once they graduated from college. Contreras points out that a great deal more professional development at every level of schooling is needed so that teachers and counselors are aware of the laws of their states and implications for students and families. Her study shows that many school staff members were ignorant of existing laws and either misinformed students or discouraged them from pursuit of higher education with incorrect or personally prejudicial information.

Stories of students’ differing mentors enables readers to see how significant school counselors, teachers, and extended family members can be in supporting students college attendance aspirations and financing of schooling, This study demonstrates that adults can play powerful roles in students’ pursuits of their dreams and should be fully informed before offering advice about what is possible. These undocumented students’ narratives provide rich texture to the complex tracking of policies also presented in this chapter.

Chapter Six offers an engaging argument concerning anti-affirmative action policies for racially and ethnically diverse students versus the seemingly acceptable policies of rewarding students who are legacies, the children of faculty, and/or the children of wealth who may well have parents who are donors to an institution of higher education. This places a fresh spin on what affirmative action is and who is benefitting from it.

Further, Contreras traces the effects of California’s Proposition 209 and Washington’s Initiative 200 on the enrollment of racially and ethnically diverse students, showcasing how a tiered system of campuses has emerged in California. This means that less selective University of California campuses increased their enrollment of diverse populations of students and also that private institutions of higher education greatly increased their enrollment of American Indian, African American, and Latino/a students when these students were denied admission to highly selective campuses such as UC-Berkeley. In Washington state, the University of Washington saw a marked decline in applicants from students who were from Latino/a and American Indian groups and also in enrollment of those same groups when offered admission.  Students and their families were exploring other options post-initiative 200 that prohibited the use of racial preferences in college admissions and in hiring in public institutions. Significant numbers of students and families seem to be speaking with their feet in choosing other options for higher education than the flagship campus of the state of Washington, ironically keeping the majority white institution, for the most part, in place. This is a fascinating window on how public laws work.

In her final chapter, the author offers ideas for increasing the achievement and college attendance and graduation for Latino/a students. Chief among these recommendations are: tying health care and pre-school services to students’ educational well-being in a wrap-around system of care; targeting quality teacher preparation for instructors of all students; increasing financial aid and reconsidering the costs of college preparation; reinvigorating Latino/a families participation in discussions and actions around the pipeline to college and beyond; and pursuit of federal acts that would enable undocumented students to harness in-state tuition.

Frances Contreras has written an outstanding book—one that presents findings from several studies she has conducted and syntheses she provides from these and other researchers’ work. I applaud the rigor of her work. My one criticism is that she frequently refers to Latinos/as who are undocumented persons as “unauthorized” students and I strongly question the use of the work “authorized” as this begs the question of who is the “authorizer” and who is “authorized”. This could be read as individuals have failed to become “authorized” due to their own agency. I much prefer to think about students as victims of systems of institutionalized racism and as not meeting the requirements of those groups, or as “undocumented”—or as not meeting the requirements of those who are “authorizers”. That being said, this text is a necessity for all who are conducting research on issues of Latino/a achievement, access to college, and their well being as citizens. I recommend it highly.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 17, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16607, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 4:59:22 PM

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About the Author
  • Mary Louise Gomez
    University of Wisconsin - Madison
    E-mail Author
    MARY LOUISE GOMEZ teaches at the University of Wisconsin - Madison School of Education. Her interests include literacy education, multicultural education, and professional development for teachers.
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