Making 'la Diferencia': How to Bring Hispanic Students to Your College

Tim Foley for The Chronicle

August 08, 2010

The only other Latino in my elementary school was named Everisto Monteiro, and while that does not exactly translate into "Mount Everest," it was close enough to produce name envy in a kid like me. Miami in the 60s was not the "suburb of Cuba" that it is today, and I longed for an Anglo name like Charles Field, my name's mundane conversion. I guess I felt that if I had to be saddled with a name that was different (at a time in life when fitting in was tantamount to breathing) and that most of my classmates and teachers butchered whenever they tried to say it, I could at least have been given a moniker with some gravitas.

"Name shame" is surely more prevalent than ever among Hispanic students, at a time when to be named Sanchez or Delgado is often enough to be labeled an illegal, with all of the accompanying cruelties.

My experience undoubtedly goes a long way to explain why I encourage our faculty and recruitment staff to respect students—Latina and Latino students and others—enough to at least pronounce their names with some dignity. While this approach may not single-handedly meet our enrollment goals for Hispanic students, it is one of many, often simple, ways that we—and other colleges and universities—can increase enrollments of Hispanic students in higher education.

It is has been nearly two years since President Molly Corbett Broad of the American Council on Education declared that "alarm bells should be going off" regarding minority enrollment in the United States, with particularly dismal numbers for Hispanics. Broad's warning was reinforced again in July with the findings of an AP-Univision poll that pointed out the discrepancy between the proportion of Hispanic adults who "value higher education" (87 percent) and those who have a college degree (13 percent).

While the number of Hispanic students in Northern Virginia continues to grow, here in the southeastern part of the state, they constitute only 4 percent of the population. Minority students make up 33 percent of our student body at Regent University—a remarkable figure for a fairly conservative Christian college—but we barely outpace the local population in our Hispanic enrollment.

Our undergraduate Hispanic students make up 6 percent of the nearly 2,000 enrolled, but our grad students are at 3 percent. We are out to improve those numbers and are aiming to grow to 15 percent in three years, but it won't be easy. Private education is expensive, and we will have to be creative and diligent to reach our enrollment goals. But faith-based institutions like ours may have an advantage: Hispanics make up nearly 30 percent of the Roman Catholics in the United States, and some researchers predict that half of all Latinos will belong to Protestant faiths by 2025. Hispanic students may well be predisposed to attend Christian universities like ours, if we can demonstrate that their traditions align with our collective mission and vision.

So what can colleges and universities do to help close this widening gap and attract Hispanic students? A few straightforward suggestions:

Invite Hispanic students onto your campuses. A college campus can be a scary place for minority students, and just setting foot on academe's hallowed ground brings down artificial walls that keep so many students away. One particular program that has worked well for us in the past lets students meet with professors; see a dance, theater, or music recital; dissect some frogs. Then we snap their photos and issue each student a "Future College Student" ID card, which gives students, and their parents, a visual memento that links them to your institution.

Reach out to Hispanic parents. Many will not come to your campus, so work with social services in your area to throw a block party in their neighborhoods, and make sure you have bilingual recruiters handing out brochures with the tacos and empanadas. You can also recruit at local Hispanic churches and community centers, but take time to build relationships. Invite the local pastors to lunch on the campus. Meet face to face with parents. "Mama" is not going to let her son—do not even think about her daughter!—leave home and go with some stranger to a school far away (and that can mean more than two blocks) unless she gets to know you a little.

Affirm your commitment to Hispanic students by offering curricular choices that honor their cultural legacy. Even the most glib recruiter's pitch will seem hollow if Hispanic students do not find any courses, programs, or offerings that provide tangible evidence that you are as committed to "minority-student success" as your ads say you are. You might consider a Latina/o-studies program, which is broader than Chicano studies or Latin American studies and can have interesting tracks like Hispanic marketing that teach excellent job-related skills.

Have your current Hispanic students serve as mentors in local high schools as part of a service-learning opportunity. Hispanics (I realize this paintbrush is quite broad) are very relational, and they are loyal. They will bond with their mentors quickly, and remember them—and their institutions—when it comes time to enroll.

If you are privileged to be a college or university president, model your commitment to Hispanic students. Educate yourself on issues that are important to Latina and Latino students and their parents. Commit to host culturally relevant events on your campus, and make sure you show up. Attend the next mixer at the nearest Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Volunteer to speak at a local school that has a high minority enrollment, and have Latin food brought in. (Local Latin restaurants often will provide it free to support an educational venture and gain some exposure.)

Above all else, be genuine in your approaches, and try to always follow through. Prospective Hispanic college students are watching you. Perhaps it is the little things that will make all la diferencia in bringing them to your campus. I can tell you that I always remembered when someone cared enough to at least try to pronounce "Carlos Campo" the way my Cuban grandmother did.

Carlos Campo is the new president of Regent University.