Jul 28, 2014

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Latinos and the College Application Process: Mount Everest

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As I am faced again with the college application process, this time with my 16 year old daughter, I am as concerned today about access to higher education and Latinos, as I was 25 years ago.  While the social, educational and economic barriers to higher education for Latinos have changed very little, the college application process has become a Mount Everest, a monstrous process that stands steep and tall between students and college doors.

The bar for college admission to selective schools has been raised so high over the past twenty years, many high school students find themselves anxious, exhausted and drained by a nail-biting, complicated, competitive application process.

Good grades and community service are a thing of the past.  Today, competitive students must show academic merit and excellence via transcripts loaded with honors and AP (advanced placement) courses, AND extreme talent and achievement in extracurricular activities (sports, music, the arts) or unique experiences (e.g., participating in the Intel Science Talent Search). Long gone are summer loves and going to the beach during summer vacations.  These days, high school students need to be strategic about how they spend their summers, and mindful of how these activities add to their application package.

Increased Competitiveness on Standardized College Admissions Tests

Remember the SAT tests?  Well, today, standardized college admissions tests include the ACT tests and SAT II Subject Tests.  Selective schools demand competitive performance on either the SAT or ACT tests, and submission of at least two SAT II subject tests.  One of the most debated discussions in racial/socioeconomic disparities and college admission has focused on cultural and socioeconomic biases argued to be inherent in standardized admissions tests.  If these tests are indeed biased against students from academically- and economically-disadvantaged backgrounds and limit entrance opportunities to colleges, students are further challenged by the high scores required (by selective colleges) on standardized tests.

Of course, most community and city colleges do not require standardized college admission tests, making these colleges more accessible to the larger college-bound population.  However, the truth is that Latinos are highly under-represented in top-tier schools like the Ivy League Colleges and other selective schools.  I would like to see more young Latinos taking advantage of the undeniably excellent educational experiences, resources and career networking opportunities available in these selective schools.

As I canvass the college application process for a second time, I am convinced that the traditional barriers between Latino students and selective universities have transformed into an extreme challenge that will continue to significantly limit access to these types of schools.

Complicated Application Submission Strategies

There was a time when colleges had one deadline for submitting college applications.  When I was applying to college, there was also the choice of early decision, a binding application agreement to attend a college if accepted.  Today, there is a conglomerate of application choices, including rolling, early action (restrictive and non-restrictive), early admission, and the usual early decision.  Confused already?  Imagine then how a 16 year old student might feel.  Better yet, imagine how daunting this process must be for parents who never went through a college application process.

Excessive Cost

In 1985, my first year at Columbia University, the tuition (including housing and board) was a little over $16,000.  Today, the tuition for first year students at Columbia College is around $58,000 — that’s 3.5 times higher than 25 years ago.  The trend is similar among other colleges around the country.  Although schools like Harvard, Columbia and Princeton have excellent financial aid packages for families with household income under $60,000 to $80,000, middle class families are falling through the gap — unable to qualify for the type of financial aid they would need to send their children to these colleges.

Record High Number of College Applicants

One would think that given the complicated and expensive nature of this process, more people would shy away from it.  Far from the truth. The number of college applications across the country has reached new heights.  Harvard received a record number of applications for the class of 2015.  University of California, Los Angeles, topped the nation with over 57,6oo applications this past year.  More applicants translates to increased competition.

Higher Expectations on the Admissions Essays

The written personal statement (and additional short answer essays) has become yet another important component in the application process.  College essay writing has become a new genre, a piece of writing expected to highlight unique personal qualities, experiences, life lessons and/or insight, in combination with creativity and good writing skills.

Guiding Students Through the College Application Process

I hope it has become evident that students need guidance and support through this arduous process.  School guidance counselors are at the forefront for coaching students with their college applications.  Unfortunately, guidance counselors are often over-extended with many more students than they can individually help.  This is more so the case in urban schools where Latino and other ethnic minority high school students attend.

Parents are also key persons in supporting students.  However, the complexities of college applications to selective colleges can leave even the most educated and informed parent looking for guidance.  In fact, the field of college admissions consulting has boomed over the past ten years.  Parents are paying as high as $40,000 to college consultants for strategic and laser-focused coaching services to maximize the student’s chances of gaining acceptance to top universities.

How Can Parents and Our Latino Community Help?

The barriers to accessing higher education for Latino students is a sociopolitical issue that deserves significant attention at local and state levels, and across public and private educational sectors.  However, until these barriers are appropriately addressed, parents and individuals like you and me can help students climb the mount everest that stands between Latinos and an education at selective colleges.

Parents

Preparation for college admissions to selective colleges begins years before high school.  Encouraging children to become avid readers, and exposing them to socially- and intellectually-stimulating activities such as musical instruments, cultural experiences and community service helps build children who are curious, worldly and talented.

Furthermore, parents should learn, as early as possible, about extra-curricular activities (sports, music, the arts) available in their community and programs for talented youths available to their children.  Becoming well informed about academic success in middle school and in high school will help parents coach their children through these important school years.  Latinos in Colleges is a website that offers relevant information for Latino families and students.  We need more of these types of information resources, both in English and in Spanish.

You and the Latino Community

There is so much each one of us can do to help.  If you’ve been through a college application, of any kind, consider coaching or mentoring a Latino student in high school.  Visit your local high school and meet with a guidance counselor, and offer a few hours of your time.  A workshop describing and explaining the college application process for Latino parents in your community is an excellent way to reach parents who need information to guide their children.

Another way to help is to recruit friends and colleagues and form a college application volunteer group, and organize workshops and small mentoring programs.

E-Mentoring is an excellent way to reach out to Latino kids across the country or across the street without having to meet in person, if your time is limited.  By using Skype, emails and other online tools, students can be effectively mentored to successfully navigate the college application process.

Let’s Start Here:  Cuenta Conmigo E-Mentoring Network on Facebook

If you would like to help a Latino high student or their parents by answering questions, providing guidance, and connecting them to resources — as much or as little as you can — join our network on Facebook.  Parents and students are encouraged to join this group to ask questions on anything relevant to college applications.  Questions can be either in Spanish or English.

If you have resources (online or off-line) that you would like to add to this post, please leave the link or information on the comments section below.


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Angélica Pérez-Litwin

Angélica Pérez-Litwin

Dr. Perez-Litwin is the Founder & CEO of ELLA Leadership Institute, a multi-platform professional development organization designed to advance the careers and leadership of women. She's the creative force behind the LATINAS THINK BIG™ national tour, sponsored and live-streamed by Google.

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Comments

  1. I will help spread the word and I can get on there to help too. This is such important work. A college education offers such an opportunity and we need to help our community get access!

    • Thank you, Julie! Yes, please come on board and support this effort. I strongly believe in the power of a good higher education. I’m working on some other projects related to this, so I’ll keep you posted!

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