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SAN FRANCISCO -- Maricruz Cabrera, a 17-year-old high school senior from Thermal, Calif., a rural community in the east Coachella valley that stretches from Indio to the Salton Sea on the southern edge of Riverside County, knows what it’s like to pick grapes under a hot desert sun. It’s back breaking. It pays little. In a nutshell, it’s hard physical labor for minimal return. Which is why Cabrera, the daughter of migrant workers, has her sights set on the one thing she believes will create job opportunities that her parents never had: a college degree.
Cabrera moved to the United States from Mexico with her parents and older siblings in 2000, and in the ensuing years all of the family members, including Cabrera herself, have had to rely heavily on farm work to make ends meet. Only recently were Cabrera’s parents able to find less physically demanding, yet still low-paying jobs -- her mother as a home-care worker and her father as a groundskeeper at a golf resort catering to tourists in plush Palm Springs.
“Getting a [college] education is sort of a necessary thing to do, in order to repay my parents for all they’ve had to [sacrifice],” said Cabrera.
She’s not alone in her thinking. In fact, it is the hope of upward mobility that she embodies -- the classic immigrant dream of a better life – as well as the economic recession, which experts say is the reason Latino college enrollment numbers have spiked to unprecedented levels across California and the nation.
According to recent data compiled by the Pew Hispanic Center, the number of Latinos aged 18-24 attending college in the United States increased by an incredible 24 percent over a one-year period, from 2009 to 2010. That increase represents a spike of nearly 350,000 students and brings the total number of college-aged Latinos enrolled to 1.8 million nationwide, or roughly 15 percent of all young adults enrolled in college. Those figures include students at both two- and four-year colleges.
“People come to the U.S. because they’re hopeful for a brighter future,” said Lisa Garcia Bedolla, a professor at the Graduate School of Education at UC Berkeley and chair of Berkeley’s Center for Latino Policy Research. “And some of that immigrant work ethic and hopefulness carries through and is evident in their kids. I can say that in my own family, and I would imagine in other families also, the immigrant generation has always been motivated because they remember what the conditions were like wherever they came from.”
In California – home to more immigrants than any other state in the nation – the overall numbers hold true but also reveal a huge gap between community colleges and four-year universities.
Within the Cal State University system of 23 college campuses, Latino enrollment grew by 3,418 students between 2009 and 2010, and those gains were most apparent on campuses located in rural counties, such as CSU Bakersfield (11 percent increase), Humboldt (32 percent), Monterey Bay (17 percent), Sonoma (18 percent) and Stanislaus (9 percent).
Even in the UC system, where four of the nine campuses actually downsized their student bodies last year, Latino enrollment increased university-wide by a modest 2,410 students between the 2009 and 2010 academic year, although Latino enrollment at the system’s most prestigious schools – Berkeley and Los Angeles – either decreased or was stagnant.
Without question, however, Latino enrollment numbers in California have increased the most in the community college system, which gained more than 40,000 Latino students between the 2009 and 2010 academic year.
Although that number only represents about a 3.5 percent increase, it’s a huge gain when compared to other ethnic groups. No other single ethnicity saw their numbers at the city college level increase by more than 0.36 percent (African Americans) over the same time period.
So while experts point to second-generation Latinos – the sons and daughters of immigrants – as the students most likely to be driving the enrollment numbers up, there remains the question: Why are they choosing to go to school now?
Certainly, population increases alone cannot account for such a dramatic increase over a one-year period, said Bedolla.
“Some of it can be attributed to shifts in educational attainment (at the high school level) in the Latino community, and some can be attributed to there being fewer opportunities for employment,” said Bedolla. “I would assume that the bad economy has something to do with [the increasing enrollment numbers].”
Professor Hugh Mehan, a sociologist at UC San Diego, agreed.
“People who can’t get a job are enrolling in community college to increase their skills so they’ll be better equipped when the economy improves,” he said.
But what looks like a positive trend on the surface – more Latinos going to college – could have unintended consequences down the line if other issues of equity are not addressed. The spike in Latino enrollees at community colleges, in tandem with budget cuts and higher fees at the state’s public universities, has Mehan concerned that the academic gains being enjoyed now by young Latinos may not automatically translate into upward mobility or a better life than what their parents had.
“A two-year degree is an important step up, but it’s not the same as a four-year degree, which can open more (professional) doors for a student,” said Mehan, who also suggests that failing to create more equity across all levels of higher education could well result in nothing less than the shattering of the American dream for a whole generation of youth born of immigrant families.
“The first-generation of immigrants have that enthusiasm and optimism, that carries into the next generation. But if those hopes and aspirations are not fulfilled, then the idea of working hard to get ahead in school diminishes.”
Mehan believes the disproportionate number of Latinos going to community college is a byproduct of rising costs at four-year public universities.
Miroslava De Leon, 17, a senior at Golden Valley High School in Greenfield, a small agricultural town outside of Bakersfield in the San Joaquin Valley, said increasing tuition fees are the main reason she’ll have to begin her college career at a local community college, despite getting good grades in high school.
“There is a financial challenge with tuition, especially in California with the (fee hikes) at CSU and UC. I have great parents and ever since I was a freshman they started a college savings account for me. But it’s not much, so I plan to stay local at Bakersfield College and then transfer,” she said. “UC Berkeley would be my dream school.”
De Leon sees her own situation mirrored by other second-generation youth in her community.
“I see it everywhere. People are saying, ‘I got in, but now how do I pay for my tuition?’ It’s a recession, and the biggest challenge is how to get through it.”
Yet for students like De Leon and Cabrera, earning a college degree is no longer a surefire ticket to success that it once was for second-generation children of immigrant parents from previous generations, said Mehan.
“The economy has shifted, so the kinds of jobs that enabled people to have upward mobility decades ago are shrinking,” he said. “Since positions are being sent offshore, jobs for people with those entry level skills don’t exist.”
The combination of economic recession and immigration policies that discourage immigrants from building a life in the United States, said Mehan, should at the very least temper any blind enthusiasm people may derive from the promising college enrollment statistics.
“The economic downturn is turning immigrants into victims. They’re being blamed for the economy. Look at Arizona, Georgia and Alabama. States are punishing Latino students for going to school, punishing immigrants for living and getting jobs. Those two factors (the recession and immigration policy) operate against the optimism that’s found in the immigrant communities.”
Despite it all, De Leon remains positive and driven to accomplish what her parents could not.
“My dad left school when he was 13 years old, after his mom passed. And my mom had to drop out of nursing school when she was (a young woman) living in Mexico. They’re my biggest inspiration, and I want to (go to college) to set an example for future generations. I want to be that change.”
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