In just a few weeks, education and community leaders will gather at the University of Texas (UT)-Austin with hope of addressing a troubling trend on campuses across the nation: the vanishing numbers of Hispanic males in higher education.
The UT-Austin Latino Male Symposium on June 24 will bring together policymakers, researchers, faculty and students to explore the reasons and brainstorm about short- and long-term solutions to address the problem.
“Ultimately, we will use this platform to enlist support from our partners across education and the community,” said Dr. Victor B. Sáenz, assistant professor, Higher Education Administration, and faculty fellow within the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement (DDCE) at UT-Austin. “Part of the aim of the symposium is not only to raise awareness but to enlist support and advocacy of multiple stakeholders.”
For Sáenz, the summit is both an opportunity to examine the disturbing trend but also a chance to promote – and formally launch – a relatively new program on campus called Project MALES, which stands for Mentoring to Achieve Latino Educational Success.
The project, part of the university’s Academic Diversity Initiatives’ DDCE, is a research-informed model that emphasizes mentoring as a way to leverage social capital among Hispanic males. Specifically, the project has been exploring ways to establish a support network for Hispanic male students and promote mentoring links between Hispanic male role models, cur-rent UT Hispanic male students and younger Hispanic males within the surrounding Austin communities.
The project places a strong emphasis on leadership development, community engagement and service; these are the three areas considered critical to the academic success and retention of male students of color in both secondary and postsecondary education.
The project’s mission is twofold: focus on research and on involvement. In the first realm, the project involves research exploring the complex experiences of Hispanic males in higher education. The project’s website serves as a clearinghouse for emerging research on Hispanic males in higher education as well as a resource for researchers and practitioners looking to learn more about this important issue. It also offers a way to link with partners and other programs engaged on issues related to males in education.
In the second realm, it involves a pilot project aimed at reaching out to Hispanic males on campus and off – often through mentoring.
“As you can see from the acronym, we are really focused on the issue of mentoring to achieve Latino male success,” Sáenz said. “We are looking to engage University of Texas male alumni, other leaders, allies within the community, and have them serve as mentors. We also will train current UT Latino males to serve as mentors and work with younger boys in middle and high schools in the surrounding areas. The idea is to pay it forward, if you will.”
Project MALES, the seeds of which were planted in late 2010, was an important step to address the growing educational attainment gap between Hispanic males and females. In 2009, Sáenz and Dr. Luis Ponjuan of the University of Florida wrote “The Vanishing Latino Male in Higher Education,” which explored the complex sociocultural factors, peer dynamics and labor force demands that diverted Hispanic males away from college campuses.
“The short answer is ‘no,’” Sáenz said when asked if much attention had been paid to this disturbing pattern. “There has been a growing chorus of attention brought to this issue recently by the College Board. We really need an organization like that to take on the role of being an advocate and push an agenda to raise awareness and instigate more research on this issue.”
The two professors, in a detailed report exploring theoretical and sociocultural explanations, unearthed some complex reasons why Hispanic males are losing ground in accessing higher education and disappearing from the ranks of secondary and postsecondary education.
Among the troubling figures both cited:
In 2005, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 1.9 million Hispanic males ages 18 to 34 were enrolled in or had finished a postsecondary education, representing about 28.1 percent of all Hispanic males within this age group. Meanwhile, 2.1 million Hispanic women 18 to 34 were enrolled or completed such education, representing 35.4 percent of the Hispanic women in that age group.
In 2005, 51.8 percent of 18- to 19-year-old Hispanic males and 57.2 percent of 18- to 19-year-old Hispanic females were still enrolled in some form of schooling – a gap that increases when representing 20- to 21-year-olds, a more traditional college-going age group.
Among 16- to 24-year-old Hispanic males in 2005, the proportion of high school dropouts was 26.4 percent compared with 18.1 percent for Hispanic females – figures that were both above White male and female counterparts. Hispanic males in this age group were four times more likely than White male counterparts to drop out.
Hispanic male and female students who enroll in higher education are disproportionate-ly over-enrolling in community colleges while remaining underrepresented in selective four-year institutions, they indicated.
While raw numbers of Hispanic males in higher education might be increasing, they have continually lost ground to Hispanic females in four-year institutions.
“It is essential to recognize and acknowledge that we can no longer remain silent about this growing epidemic,” the authors concluded. “This crisis is real, yet it remains ambiguous and undefined, a point that is all the more dis-concerting considering the economic and social consequences that it could portend. The sobering statistics are a clarion call for proactive action.”
The two, citing a number of reasons why Hispanic males lagged substantially behind Hispanic females at nearly every critical juncture of the higher education pipeline, addressed the pattern of Hispanic males joining the work force and the military, or having a significant presence in the prison system.
“There are many salient reasons,” Ponjuan said. “There are family obligations. Latino males have a strong ethos to not only contribute to their well-being but to their families’ well-being. They have an expectation to contribute to the livelihood of their family.”
Additionally, there is peer pressure, machismo that prevents a number of younger Hispanic males from seeking help and therefore believing they have exposed a weakness. And, he noted, Hispanic males have shown a general malaise when compared with Hispanic females, and often pursued work immediately after high school for “quick satisfaction and a quick buck, rather than investing in themselves and going to college.”
Despite painting a disturbing picture, the two professors detailed a number of promising efforts at different organizational levels to assuage the declining trend, within K-12, post-secondary, federally funded and private-sector outreach programs.
All were rooted in goals similar to Project MALES and aimed at improving access, recruitment, retention and building stronger educational pathways for Hispanics.
“There have been pockets of folks who have done some work in this area, but it had really been outdated,” Ponjuan said of the research. “There is a large contingent and very strong grass-roots approach from the African-American community. A lot of folks clearly are interested in and investing in the African-American male phenomenon, the issues surrounding them, but the same cannot be said about Latino males.
He added: “We needed to continue to raise this at a higher level because we feel that Latino males deserve their time in the limelight.”
That was the inspiration for Project MALES. For Hispanic males to succeed in the varied academic pathways, organizers of Project MALES insist that researchers, policymakers, public officials, private-sector leaders and Hispanic families and communities must work together.
Dr. William Serrata, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management at South Texas College, said he had sought to understand the problem better. His campus is 96 percent Hispanic – with female Hispanics comprising about 60 percent of the school’s enrollment. Yet, in the surrounding general population, Hispanic males outnumbered Hispanic females.
“This was a crisis in waiting,” he said. “If we didn’t get more Latino males into higher education, we were headed for an economic crisis.” He discussed the issue with colleagues and start-ed to explore the problem and found that many Hispanic males talked about the lack of mentoring and role models.
“They needed someone to help them along,” said Serrata, who subsequently applied for a grant. Although he didn’t receive the grant, he continued to push the need to address this and together with Sáenz developed the Project MALES program. “We have to get them into the pipeline, have to get them into college and have to get them to graduate.”
The program, which also is at a third college, Lone Star College in Houston, is still largely in its infancy. But, as with Sáenz, Serrata has institutional support. “We have a department that leads the initiative, but we are looking at our campus so we do not have to reinvent the wheel, and we will implement initiatives strategically within all programs,” Serrata said.
During this period, the recruitment of men-tors is pivotal and growing incrementally. Serrata stressed the importance, for example, of identifying appropriate faculty members who recognize the day-to-day responsibilities and obligations that come with being an instructive mentor.
“The Latino males immediately know if a faculty member cares for them,” Serrata said. “If they feel they don’t, then they won’t put their best effort forward in class. Male students we interviewed said they could not get their questions in because their female counterparts were very assertive in asking their questions. So we started to ask faculty to call on the males in their class in particular. We have been asking faculty members to make sure they have a warm environment.”
“It’s small incremental moves that in the end will have a large effect,” he said.
Manuel A. González, a second-year doctoral student in higher education administration at UT-Austin, became involved in the program by his association with Sáenz. “We had a mutual interest in the vanishing Latino male in higher education,” González said. “Part of it was self-serving because I saw these issues myself.”
González, born and raised in inner-city Houston, said he looked back at his education in elementary, middle and high school and realized that there were very few Hispanic men who were supportive.
Both of his parents were immigrants from Mexico who came to the United States in hope of a better life. His parents stressed the importance of education and worked two jobs to send him and his brother across town to a private school. González attended Trinity University in San Antonio, where he received an undergraduate degree in business management and Spanish, and is currently in his fourth year of graduate work at UT-Austin.
He credits his father as one of the only Hispanic male role models to foster his success.
“It was a stark reality,” he said. “Thankfully, it wasn’t until graduate school with Dr. Sáenz, when I had a faculty member who identified as Latino. There was a void of Hispanic male mentors who emphasized the importance of education.”
Project MALES, he said, strives to raise awareness among other universities and colleges. But, he said, it’s not enough. Community leaders, neighborhood organizations and social clubs – anywhere Hispanic males might congregate – need to emphasize an education track.
“They need to understand that mentoring these Latino males is a key component of their success,” he said. Such leadership is needed to make a difference, in the private and public sectors.
UT-Austin’s conference next month is crucial but not alone in attempting to address the problem. Ponjuan has planned a symposium at the University of Florida on June 13 – 11 days before the Texas event.
Collectively, Ponjuan and Sáenz hope that further research and provocative discussions will not only engage people and organizations but inspire greater participation in Project MALES.
Said Sáenz: “The symposium will be our coming-out party, if you will. We are planning for it to be a mixture of the scholarly and action-oriented, bringing people to the table to share good and promising practices to serve the needs of these students.”