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State’s Latino students do well in college, but Latinos overall lag in degrees

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WASHINGTON – Arizona did a better job of getting Latino students through college than other states, but still lagged when it came to the number of Latino adults with college degrees compared to all adults, a new report said.

“Compared to other states, Arizona does look better,” said Deborah Santiago, vice president for Excelencia in Education, which released the report Tuesday.

The report, which stressed the need for improved college completion by Latinos for the sake of the country’s work force, looked at three college completion measures to determine achievement gaps between Latino and white students.

Arizona scored above the national average on two measures – full-time Latino student graduation rates and the number of degrees earned by full- and part-time Latino students in the 2007-2008 school year. The gap between Latinos and whites was also narrower in Arizona than in the nation for graduation rates and for degrees earned, where there was no difference between groups.

But Santiago cautioned that while the state did well on college completion rates, Arizona still lagged in degree attainment overall by Latino adults. Only 17 percent of Latino adults in Arizona had a college degree, compared to 35 percent of all adults in the state – both numbers that fell below the national average, she said.

“There are a lot of people in Arizona, especially Latinos, that haven’t gone to college,” Santiago said.

That means that many of the state’s grade-school and high-school students, 41 percent of whom are Latino, “would potentially be the first in their families to go to college,” she said.

Eduardo Ochoa, assistant U.S. secretary of education, said improving Latino college completion is crucial to meeting President Barack Obama’s goal of making the United States the leader in college graduates by 2020.

“We’re not going to be able to do that unless the gap between the Latino population and the overall population in the United States is bridged,” said Ochoa, who participated in the release of the report. “This is clearly a priority.”

But education advocates said Latinos face a variety of challenges to getting an education in Arizona. Rene Diaz-Lefebvre, president-elect of the Arizona Association of Chicanos for Higher Education, said tensions in the state such as the ban on ethnic studies and the aftermath of SB 1070 negatively affect Latino education.

“There is so much that is going on that is adding to the climate of concern of attention to students and the Latino community in general,” Diaz-Lefebvre said.

“We’re seeing an explosion in terms of the number of children, the number of kids enrolled in our schools and hopefully those kids will be encouraged to go on to higher education,” he said. “We’re really at a major crossroads in higher education.”

Santiago agreed that Arizona’s situation is unique and the state should focus on targeting young Latino students to encourage them to enroll in college, especially those who would be first-generation college students. Diaz-Lefebvre stressed the importance of creating “a welcoming system of encouraging these Latino kids to not only stay in school, but graduate as well.”

“It is a serious challenge for the state of Arizona,” Diaz-Lefebvre said. “We haven’t even begun to look at the wasted talent and potential of many of our young people that are falling through the cracks because of beliefs, of policies, of attitudes.”

Dennis Jones, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, said “the country will have no hope” for an educated workforce if it does not address Latino education issues.

“If Latinos aren’t part of the success story, then the United States doesn’t have a success story,” said Jones, who also participated in the report’s release.