The Importance of Making Latino Student Success a Family Goal

Alfredo Gonzalez
Senior Associate, Excelencia in Education
Professor and Dean Emeritus, California State University Los Angeles

“My parents don’t believe that I’m staying at the library until 9:30 at night
working on a project with other students from one of my classes.”

"My dad says, now that I’m in college taking only four classes, and in school only three days a week,
I should work more hours at my part time job. He thinks that college has to be easier than high school
when I was taking five classes, going from 9:00 in the morning until 1:30 in the afternoon, five days a week.”

The quotes above are just two examples of numerous others I have heard from Latino students over the years expressing some of the challenges they face from their parents and other family members while they are attending college.

This seems at odds with what we know about how much Latinos value education. The parents of Latino students care about, and are as interested in supporting their children in school as much as any other group of parents, perhaps more. According to the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project 2009 survey, 88% of all Latinos agreed that going to college was necessary for getting ahead as compared to 74% of the general population.

What accounts for this apparent discrepancy? I believe that what is at play is the disconnect between what Latino parents of first generation college students want and know is in the best interest of their children – a college degree and all of the accompanying benefits – and what they know about college and what it takes to be successful in college – the difference between high school and college, the many hours of study outside the classroom, late hours at the library, or having to miss the quinceañera because a term paper is due.

With only 24% of Latino children ages 6-18 having a parent who has earned an associate degree or higher, when Latino students return home to their family at the end of a day at the university, there is often no one who knows what the “world” of the university is like, who understands what they are experiencing, or what is required of them to be a successful college student. There is no one from whom they can learn to how manage a new and very different environment. Due to lack of experience and familiarity with the university there is a limit to the level of “informed” support that Latino parents and other family members can provide their college attending sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.

After entering college, nothing can be done to alter the history and biography of students, and little, at least immediately, to alter the community and educational systems from which they come. But much more can, and needs to be done, to influence the role of parents, sisters and brothers, grandparents, and guardians – the entire familia, to more effectively support their children, and brothers, and sisters while they are attending college.

Parents are not generally part of the conversation on college and university campuses except in the context of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) or development (raising money). While it may seem like a new paradigm, colleges and universities interested in enrolling, retaining, and graduating Latino students must develop and implement robust parent/family programs, not merely provide parent orientations or sponsor parent associations. Such programs must provide information that helps parents and family better understand the college experience of their children, what it takes to be a successful college student, and the kinds of things that they can do to help their children be successful. With this kind of information and support, the parents and families of Latino students can be more effective partners with their sons and daughters to help them achieve college success.

In an effort to help parents better understand the college-going process, California State University Los Angeles initiated the Cal State LA Parent Academy. The Parent Academy offers three half day programs, in English and Spanish, covering such topics as: Differences between high school and college, what it takes to succeed in college, financial aid, and making college success a family goal. Information is intended to help parents engage and support their son/daughter more effectively and with a greater degree of understanding and empathy than without the knowledge gained from Parent Academy.

The following should be at the core of any university or college parent/family program:

  • Institutional recognition of the critical role that Latino parents and families play in the retention, academic success, and graduation of their sons and daughters, while they are in college.
  • A reorientation in how the institution welcomes, relates to and includes Latino parents and families in their student success strategies and efforts, which includes helping to make parents and family members aware of the critical role they play.
  • Building a relationship and trust with Latino parents and families at the individual, program, and institutional levels.
  • While parent/family programs may be developed and informed by the experience of others and other programs, they will ultimately be grounded in the background and culture of the institution. Nonetheless, the needs, background and culture of the parents and families of students who are being served should be the principle focus in program design and delivery.
  • Any parent/family engagement program must:
    - Take into account the expressed needs and priorities of the parents and families to be served;
    - Provide information and examples that help equip parents and family members to contribute to making college success a family goal; and
    - Provide information to Latino parents and families with an appreciation for, and responsiveness to their language and culture.

Alfredo Gonzalez is a Senior Associate with Excelencia in Education, and Professor and Dean Emeritus at California State University Los Angeles, where he served as Dean of Undergraduate Studies for over 20 years. In 2013 he helped found the Cal State L.A. Parent Academy program, for which he currently serves as Director.