Original URL: http://www.azstarnet.com/star/Sat/30726UAHISPANIC.html

UA goal to attract Latinos is elusive
July 26, 2003

By Rhonda Bodfield

It's not going to be easy to increase the University of Arizona's Latino enrollment by enough to meet President Peter Likins' goal of winning federal recognition as a Hispanic-serving institution.

The goal is so elusive that few of the UA's peers have achieved it - sometimes despite great expense.

Of the roughly 190 higher education facilities to get the designation, which can help free up federal grant money, the vast bulk are community or technical colleges. Except for a handful, the universities with the designation are generally vastly smaller than the UA or private institutions.

Nowhere on the list is UCLA, for example, or the University of Texas at Austin or the University of Colorado - all in Western states with roughly similar demographics.

The UA, with 14 percent Hispanic enrollment, leads its sister universities in Hispanic enrollment in the state. Northern Arizona University and Arizona State University both hover around 11 percent.

But the climb for the UA will be steep: Every percentage point equals another 300 students. The designation requires that a quarter of students be of Hispanic origin.

Likins concedes that with his retirement looming in three years, he probably won't be leading the UA when it happens. But he remains convinced it's a worthy goal - along with strengthening diversity from other ethnic groups for which there is not yet a comparable federal designation.

"Any university president in these days understands the generation we are now educating will, when they reach my age, live in a different America. It will be an age where there's no white majority," Likins said.

As a result, he said, students "will have to be able to deal effectively with different cultures, different languages, different religions than did people of my generation."

Getting there is the trick, full of political pitfalls and difficult social questions.

UA alumnus Peter Vokac, for example, questions whether there will be a detriment to other students if Hispanic enrollment is made a priority, particularly if other minority students end up displaced. And he's not sure the goal is even attainable without some major work in areas Likins has little control over.

"Until the notoriously high dropout rate problem is solved, there's no chance of getting to this goal," Vokac said.

There are no ready answers to such questions.

The University of California system spent nearly $200 million in 2000 on outreach programs to lure more minority students after it instituted a race-blind admissions policy in 1998. Even so, minority enrollment dropped from 26 percent in 1995 to 16 percent.

Meanwhile, a new trend has since surfaced: fewer blacks and Hispanics are  enrolling at UCLA and Berkeley in favor of attending some of the smaller campuses.

That jibes with the research findings of Roberto Ibarra, in charge of coordinating the University of New Mexico's diversity initiative. Almost 30 percent of University of New Mexico students are Hispanic.

Extensive interviews Ibarra conducted with students in the 1990s led him to conclude that minority students are put off by large, impersonal lecture formats.

"Most of the populations we're dealing with today are from communities that imprint upon them a more people-oriented environment, and when you don't have that environment in place, you leave, you drop out, you don't perform well," Ibarra said.

The New Mexico medical school created a secondary track for students that put more emphasis on small group problem-solving instead of the lecture-and-memorization format.

It can be more expensive, Ibarra said, but the advantage is that minority faculty members also tend to like to teach that way, so the medical program is counted among the most diverse in the country.

New Mexico State University has 41 percent Hispanic enrollment. Gladys DeNecochea, vice president for student services, notes that New Mexico has the most heavily Hispanic population in the nation, with 42 percent.

But that can't be the whole reason for the enrollment success, given that Arizona's Hispanic population portion ranks fourth in the country, at more than 25 percent. DeNecochea says New Mexico State does outreach and has small class sizes and, consequently, better faculty interaction with students.

There's a program for middle-school girls and their mothers, with the thinking that family support makes a big difference in accomplishing goals. Plus, there's the state scholarship program funded with lottery proceeds, which pays tuition for all full-time students who make a 2.5 grade point average or better their first semester. About 40 percent of NMSU's Hispanic students are on the lottery scholarship.

M.J. Utter, a former English teacher who now works as a guidance counselor at Desert View High School in the Sunnyside district, said a number of her students are the first in their families to attend college and find the system overwhelming. Some opt to go to Pima Community College, which is designated a Hispanic-serving institution, and where they have a higher comfort level than at the UA.

"Finances are a big thing, too," she said. "They'll tell me they just can't afford to go and decide to go to Pima first to save money."

Utter was disappointed when the UA phased out its APEX program, designed to expose disadvantaged or minority junior high and high school students to the UA through field trips, tours and mentoring. Instead, parts of the program were merged into the MESA program, which is similar but puts a heavier emphasis on math, engineering and science.

Utter had 100 students involved in APEX before it was phased out two years ago. Only 20 were enrolled in MESA this year.

Arlene Benavidez, a coordinator for the UA's early academic outreach program, said about 75 percent of the roughly 1,000 MESA participants last year were Latino. In addition to helping them prepare for college and apply for financial aid, the program includes activities for parents. The unit has plans to expand to some elementary schools in a pilot program.

Of the 117 seniors in the program in 2002, Benavidez said, 52 percent enrolled at the UA. Others may have gone on to other colleges, but weren't tracked. 

But the outreach program is still trying to ramp up to previous numbers served. APEX, which was in more schools and which was more open to other disciplines, was serving 1,300 students in 2001, compared with MESA's 700. Nine middle schools previously part of APEX are being phased in for MESA next year.

Laura Luna, 23, graduated from the UA in December.

Neither of her parents went to college, but they impressed upon their children that education was important. Which is why an older sister graduated from the UA and Luna's younger brother is in college. And which is why, when a math teacher told her not to bother applying to the UA, despite her 3.7 grade point average, and to focus instead on a community college, Luna didn't listen.

"I didn't feel I wasn't going to be able to make it there," said Luna. "But as a high school student, when you hear it from an adult who went to college, you believe it. That's one of the largest reasons some Hispanic students will not even attempt to apply for the UA."

She is now director of youth services for Chicanos Por La Causa, where she helps students learn computer skills and apply for college.

She wasn't entirely comfortable at the UA at first, she recalls. "When you come from a small town and when you're Latina, and you come from a close-knit family, you feel overwhelmed. But I remember feeling that because of the way I was brought up, we have to tackle our obstacles." Luna said she felt more at home  when she joined Kappa Delta Chi, a service-based Latina sorority on campus.

Edith Auslander, a former Tucson Newspapers executive tapped this week by Likins to serve as his Hispanic liaison starting in September, said she doesn't have all the answers - yet.

But she does feel that the UA has some programs to build on. The journalism program started recruiting minority students 30 years ago. Hispanic alumni have raised a $1.6 million endowment, which provides full tuition for 108 students every year. Whether all of the resources are working together is something she is still reviewing.

"I think the president has set the pace and we'll all be working in this area," Auslander said. "It's a big job. "

* Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at 807-7789 or rhondab@azstarnet.com