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Closing Achievement Gap Is Nationwide Challenge


Hispanics are one of the fastest growing populations in the United States, and could become the largest ethnic group in our country within the next few decades. What can be done to increase participation rates among Latinos in colleges and universities? We speak to the president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. President Barack Obama has been speaking a lot about education lately and about his goal of increasing the number of college graduates in America. In fact, by the year 2020 the president says he'd like to see the U.S. have the highest share of college graduates in the world. In order to attain that goal, American schools are going to have to address the achievement gap, the statistical lag in grades and degrees earned by Latino and African-American students. That issue is on the agenda of a major educational conference taking place this week here in San Diego. Joining me to talk about the programs and policies that could help more students pursue a college education is my guest, Dr. Antonio Flores. He’s president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. And, Antonio, welcome to These Days.

DR. ANTONIO FLORES (President, Association of Colleges and Universities): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Now we invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you think present policies make it harder for Latino students to go to college? Or do you think student attitudes need to change? Give us a call with your questions, your stories, your comments, 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Now, as I said, the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities holds its annual conference in San Diego this weekend. Can you tell us a little bit about the goals of the organization and the purpose of the conference?

DR. FLORES: The primary goals of the organization are three. One, we want to showcase the best practices of our colleges and universities across the nation and share those best practices with all other institutions so that they can try to incorporate them include their institutional work to increase Latino success in higher education. Secondly, we also want to discuss, in a very substantive way, policy issues and legislative matters that are pending in Congress and even at the state level in California to ensure that those policies and those laws are improved to increase access and success for Latino students and other students who historically have been underrepresented in higher education. And, thirdly, of course, we wanted to create opportunities for our memberships which is comprised of presidents of college (sic) and universities as well as other senior administrators to come together and network and share some of their own ideas and experiences on how to best increase institutional success in moving forward, the idea of increasing Latino success in higher education.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering about the membership of this group, the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. Do you have people who are Hispanic educators or are there actual administrators from colleges who have large Latino populations?

DR. FLORES: It is the latter. We have in our membership basically institutional members in those colleges and universities that have high Latino enrollments are the ones that are part of our association. We have basically three categories of membership. One is what we call Hispanic serving institutions, those that have 25% or more Latinos enrolled. We also have the associate membership, which is 10 to 24% or at least 1,000 Latinos enrolled. And then we have partner institutions, those that are not yet at that level of the 10% or 1,000 minimum, but are moving in that direction and want to increase their Latino enrollment.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder if you could tell us what you believe are some of the biggest challenges that face the Latino student now who aspires to go to college.

DR. FLORES: I think there are really various kinds of challenges for them. Some have to do with their own socio-economic conditions, others have to do with the schools they attend, and others have to do with policies at the national level. Let me start with the first set of conditions. You know, oftentimes, our Latino students come from homes where the parents have never had the opportunity to finish high school, let alone go to college. So the collegiate experience is not part of their lives and they already start with a strike against them in that regard. Then they go to some of the most under-resourced schools with the least experienced teachers, oftentimes, not the best, most rigorous curriculum, and not the equipment and lab that is needed for an enriched curriculum. So that’s another strike against them. So they already have those disadvantages from the home setting as well as the schools they attend. You put those together and, of course, you create a situation of very little probability for young people to not only go to college but even finish high school. So we have a tremendous dropout rate in K-12. But in addition, we have situations where the colleges and universities they attend, which are, as I said before, Hispanic serving institutions, are not well funded. Just to give you an idea, at the federal level, these institutions only get 52 cents for every dollar that the rest of higher education institutions get from all the federal sources. And what that means is that these institutions that are serving the needs of the neediest students have the fewerest (sic) resources to do that. So it’s a paradox that we need to fix and that’s why our association is pushing very hard for legislative changes and for a change in appropriations at the federal level so that these institutions get more adequate resources to do the job that they need to do. Because, again, because the future of our country really depends on how well we educate the future generations of Latinos and other Latin students who are having (sic) historically left behind. Now that obviously implies that the third component of our work has to do with policy, and policy not only includes changing the minds of people in Congress or state legislatures but also educating the larger public, the society at large.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to take these step by step. I want to let everyone know that I’m speaking with Dr. Antonio Flores. He’s president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. That organization is meet – holding its annual meeting here in San Diego. And we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Right now, Andrew is on the line from Mission Valley. And good morning, Andrew. Welcome to These Days.

ANDREW (Caller, Mission Valley): Thank you for taking my call. A question for Dr. Flores. The first point you mentioned about the home life aspect, as the son of immigrants to this country, I totally relate to what you were saying. And I guess I agree that this is something that, you know, is something that is holding back Latino students from going to college but I really question like, you know, it probably took Caucasian people when they came to this country many generations before it became normal for them to kind of aspire automatically to go to college. I’m wondering kind of how realistic is it to kind of turbo-charge that process for Latinos since many of our families just came in the past, you know, one or two generations. And it took white people…


ANDREW: …when they came, you know, multiple generations and is there a certain part – I agree, we should do everything we can to turbo-charge that if possible but isn’t there a certain just kind of process of culturation or assimilation or is that…

CAVANAUGH: Is it just going to take…

ANDREW: …going to have to happen anyway?

CAVANAUGH: Right, is it just going to take its own time? Thank you, Andrew.

DR. FLORES: Yeah, those are great points, Andrew. And let me just suggest the following. One is that for the most part, those European families that immigrated to this nation in years past pretty much cut off contact with the old country because there was a whole ocean between them, and then there were no other means of transportation that we have today. So they pretty much were leaving behind the old country and they had almost no other choice but to assimilate as quickly as possible. In the case of Latinos, that is another case. We have a continuing flow of population coming from Mexico, Central and South America, that is probably not going to slow down in a long time and that continues to feed linguistically and culturally the population that is already here and obviously the proximity of these countries to ours is such that we also have a lot of our Latinos going back to visit and spend time with family back in the old country. So that cultural connection most likely will never end just because of those realities. But to your point of how can we help homes that have Latino situations like the one we’re discussing but obviously many of these parents are also not in command of the language, of English, or understand how the system works, especially the educational system because they didn’t grow up here and they themselves oftentimes failed to complete even a high school diploma so we need to work with the parents, we need to work with the families so that they become partners in the education of their children despite the fact that some of those parents may not be fluent in English but they understand obviously in their own language how they can become successful partners in the education of their children, how they can set time aside in the home for schoolwork, how to use community resources to enrich the education of their children, how to communicate with the school to ensure that their kids get the kinds of courses that they need to take in high school, for example, in order to prepare for college and so forth. All of those things, many of these parents don’t know, and we need to help them understand them and engage them.

CAVANAUGH: And may I also offer this and ask you if you agree, Andrew’s point that it took European families a number of generations to have their kids start going to college. Are we now in a different world where going to college really means so much more to a young person’s future?

DR. FLORES: Absolutely. I mean, you can think of the early part of the last century when most European immigrants were coming into this country in large numbers, what you needed – well, you don’t even need a high school diploma to get a job that will allow you to make a living. Later on, you probably just needed a high school diploma and more than anything, you had to have a strong back and a willingness to work and you would make it. Those jobs are gone. We are in a high technology, very sophisticated economy that requires increasingly higher levels of education in order to have a job that allows you to make a living and to contribute to society. And so that is a very different world, the one we’re living in. Obviously, now, our world is globalized. It’s not just California competing with Arizona and other states in terms of economic development, it is the U.S. and the world. And so we are now, of course, viewing China and other countries as our main competitors and oftentimes they show better results in educating their populations. And, of course, you mentioned President Obama citing the very obviously important goal of becoming again the number one country in the world with respect to degree attainment in higher education. We are number twelve right now, so it’s a very tall order but I think with appropriate adequate resources and a push by everyone concerned it can be achieved, maybe not in 2020 but whenever it is, I think we can get there. And, of course, again, to your point, yes, we live in a very different world that demands increasingly more and better higher education attainment on the part of people across the board, not just of Latinos.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Dr. Flores, when – I know that you’re focused on colleges and university because that’s your organization and that’s your expertise. But, you know, when you look back and you see when kids are – don’t go on to the college track, it usually starts much earlier in their educational experience, and we routinely talk about the student achievement gap, the fact that there seems to be a gap in scores between Latino students and black students and the larger population of kids in school. Do we know why that exists?

DR. FLORES: Yes, and, of course, let me just clarify that although we are focused on higher education as an association, we recognize very clearly that to win the battle, to win the war, if you will, we have to win the battle in K-12 education, which means that our higher education institutions need to collaborate more closely with the K-12 schools in their service areas. We also need to do a much better job at one key aspect of higher education, is the education and training of teachers. I think we have a long ways to go as a nation to do the job that needs to be done. Many of our teachers are not as well equipped to do the job, especially in those schools attended by Latinos, blacks and others, not just from a cultural point of view but from a subject content point of view and from a methodological point of view. So, yes, we have to do a lot better and our colleges and universities need to be part of the solution. That’s why we’re pushing for changes in the legislation, the No Child Left Behind legislation, so that there is new funding invested in teacher education in a significant way to make a difference with respect to that because that contributes a lot to that achievement gap that we’re referring to.

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break. And when we return, I’ll continue my conversation with Dr. Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, and continue to take your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. The Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities is meeting here in San Diego this weekend, and the president of that organization, Dr. Antonio Flores, is here as my guest. We’re taking your phone calls at 1-888-895-5727. And let’s take a call right now from Bethany, calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Bethany. Welcome to These Days.

BETHANY (Caller, San Diego): Hi. Thank you so much for taking my call.

CAVANAUGH: You’re welcome.

BETHANY: I wanted to just make two quick points. One is one of the things that I have noticed through my father who’s a professor at a university in Oklahoma, his Latino students sometimes have trouble sticking through a class, and he teaches Psych 101 because they have responsibilities at home that I think other students don’t have like taking care of grandparents and parents or I think sometimes in other cultures, we’re – students aren’t expected to take care of people like that. And they’re – they kind of are freer to go out on their own and experience their life.

CAVANAUGH: Bethany, thank you for that. And would you like to comment, Dr. Flores?

DR. FLORES: Yeah, I think that’s particularly true of the first generation Latinos in the U.S. that are not yet as acculturated to the American way of life, if you will. And, yes, they not only oftentimes are taking care of grandparents but also of younger siblings or other extended family members. And there’s a sense of connectedness across members of the extended family that is not the same as it is in other cultures and that has an enriching component to their lives, of course, but it also has some drawbacks in terms of being able to independently go forward with one’s goals. And, yeah, it would affect some of those students who are – the more engaged they are in extended family matters, the less time they will have to devote to school.

CAVANAUGH: And earlier you mentioned the problem of language. You know, that issue has been highly politicized in school districts across this state and in other states, the idea of English immersion classes as opposed to bilingual education and so forth. Do you think that political debate has actually hurt Latino students?

DR. FLORES: I think it has because, you know, the whole issue of bilingual education, unfortunately, has been historically been approached as a deficit model not as an enrichment model. So the stigma is there already because over the years that is the kind of conversation that has taken place, that children in bilingual education programs need something that others do not and, therefore, this is a comp ed kind of program, a deficit-based model. That creates a problem for those children. I think the problem with those kinds of programs is not the theory, not the basis for the programs, it is the implementation of those programs that are oftentimes staffed not with the best teachers, the best staff. They are not well prepared and they don’t have the resources to do it right. But where it’s done correctly, and the research is there to prove it, bilingual education programs, particularly those that are provided as dual language programs, tend to excel and exceed the results of monolingual programs in more than one way, not only academically but in terms of intellectual development. And the children who are exposed to that process tend to be more intellectually stimulated and capable over the years. So it’s about the quality aspect of bilingual education that really we need to address. And at this point, yes, unfortunately, programs, by and large, have not been appropriately implemented.

CAVANAUGH: I am speaking with Dr. Antonio Flores. He’s president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. Many people want to join our conversation at 1-888-895-5727. You can also go online at Natalia is calling us from Mission Hills. Good morning and welcome to These Days.

NATALIA (Caller, Mission Hills): Good morning. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: You’re welcome.

NATALIA: My question for Dr. Flores is how do you attribute the difference within the Asian community. Asian parents of similar economic backgrounds who have recently arrived in this country, they manage to push their kids to do well in school and to achieve higher education and yet Latino parents do not do that. What do you attribute that to? Why does that happen?

DR. FLORES: Well, you know, it’s a very good question. Asian students not only outperform Latinos and blacks, they also outperform whites. Okay, they are the highest achievers in our K-12 and higher education systems. And for the most part obviously they come from countries where education is viewed very different to the way it is viewed in the U.S. in at least three ways. From the standpoint of the length of time they attend school both within a given day and in the school year. Secondly, because they view the teaching profession very differently, they actually respect very highly teachers and reward them just on the same basis or better than other professions. And, thirdly, that is so ingrained in their culture that it is a must for them to move forward as high as possible in education. And they bring with them all those very good qualities, if you will, wherever – to the U.S. when they immigrate to the U.S. and put them to work. And here in the U.S., I’m aware because I have relatives who actually teach Chinese immigrant children in the LA area after school hours. They have their own home-based schools with paid teachers. They pool their money and pay teachers to teach their children advanced math and advanced English, advanced science, okay. They understand and appreciate the tremendous value of education and they put their money in that direction. We need to instill the same in our Latino families and other families and in our own government because how is it that we have a school year that remains limited to 180 days per year, and in some cases less depending on where you live in the country, compared to 240 days in other countries in Asia. That’s why we are so far behind those countries as a country as well. And so your point about Asian origin students is loaded of course with the reality of the cultures and the places where they came from, and that explains a lot of that. And it is more about the time on task that they spend and the investments and sacrifices they are willing to make. We have to instill that in our society as a class as a whole, not just the Asian community.

CAVANAUGH: Heather is calling us from Chula Vista. Good morning, Heather. Welcome to These Days.

HEATHER (Caller, Chula Vista): Thank you. Yes, good morning. And piggybacking on the idea that you were just discussing, I’m wondering if there’s any sort of marketing or campaigns that are specifically aimed at targeting the parents of younger Latino students to kind of let them know the importance of education and to set the precedents early on in the elementary school years, that you can achieve, you can go to college, you can do this.

CAVANAUGH: I think, yes, thank you, Heather. I think you pointed that out earlier.

DR. FLORES: Sure. And there are some limited local campaigns like the ones you’re referring to and I’m sure that there are many school districts across the country that are trying their best to engage parents. But we need to make it a national priority. It is something that is so critical to the education of children that their parents be involved meaningfully, not just going to the PTA meeting or something of that sort but actually understanding how important it is for them to make time and space in their homes for the kids to apply themselves to education. How they can also reach out to community resources that are within reach of the education of their children from places where is free or are very low cost to do that such as libraries, museums and other places that are available to anyone in the community but they don’t understand that they are actually free or that are accessible to them. And many of those parents obviously don’t understand how the educational system works. For example, if you don’t take Algebra I in grade 8 or 9, most likely you will not take the rest of the sequence because it’s only offered once. If you miss it, you miss the rest. So many unaware Latino parents might not know that, that their children must take Algebra I whenever it’s offered, otherwise they’re going to finish high school with a very weak math preparation and unable to really compete well in entrance exams to go to college or let alone go into an engineering field. So they write themselves out of those possibilities but the parents don’t understand those intricacies so we have to teach them at the level they are, what difference they can make and how they can make that difference in the education of their children and not just the campaign or a PR campaign, but actually a substantive program that will engage the parents in becoming strong partners in education of their kids.

CAVANAUGH: As I said, a lot of people want to join our conversation. Patricia is on the line from Los Angeles. Good morning, Patricia. Welcome to These Days.

PATRICIA (Caller, Los Angeles): Hi, good morning. You’re a part of my daily commute.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you.

PATRICIA: This conversation is actually one that I have on a daily basis with a lot of my friends and family. And my husband and I talk a lot about the utter poverty we lived while we were going through college. Our parents were just simply not prepared to help us economically in order for us to not work as many hours as the other students that maybe might’ve worked 8 to 10 hours a week, we literally worked 30 hours a week and we were still expected to carry a full load. I’m interested in seeing what Dr. Flores has to say about the changes that need to occur to support a student once they’re already in college so that they don’t expend a lot of their time and energy working to support themselves and more time and energy actually going to school and finishing up their homework and not dropping out of college because you can’t – you just can’t make the grade.


CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Patricia.

DR. FLORES: …I think a very good question, Patricia. And some of the things that they can do and should do include like getting a better understanding of how the financial aid system works and making sure that they applying -- apply on time for grants and other forms of financial aid because, oftentimes, they miss those deadlines and once you miss the deadline on a scholarship or grant, well, you’re not going to be able to tap on that resource. And they enter college, oftentimes, without the benefit of that kind of support when they actually are eligible for it, they just didn’t apply or didn’t apply on time. And also you might want to know that Latinos don’t borrow that much money as they go through college, even though they could. And, on the other hand, they work many more hours on average than their peers in college. That’s wrong. They should concentrate on the number one job which is getting the best education they can even if it means to borrow some money that they can pay back later when they earn higher incomes with a college degree. And that’s wrong for them to try to do both things at once because they’re – the quality of their studies is going to suffer. So we have to instill that and teach the parents and the students as they go through high school and middle school how to best access financial aid resources and how important it is for them to focus on studying more so than working. And right now it’s sort of a split situation there, as you pointed out, and that affects the quality of their studies. We must change that.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you about a piece of legislation that’s making its way through the Senate. What do you think about the Dream Act. Now this is a provision that would give illegal immigrants to this country an opportunity to gain citizen (sic) if they serve in the military or if they attend college. What do you think that that might do if, indeed, it is approved and signed into law?

DR. FLORES: I think it – the Dream Act must be passed, that’s my view, by Congress sooner rather than later. The Senate is supposed to act on this legislation next week and we hope that all the U.S. Senators will rally behind and pass that so that the House can do the same and the president can sign that into law because it will help our country tap on the talents and tremendous demonstrated citizenship that these non-citizens already have demonstrated because they came as children at no fault of their own, undocumented, to this country and now they are young adults and face a reality of not having legal immigrant status but giving great potential to contribute to our society. We already invested in their education up to high school, invested in other forms of human development investments that need to be there, and now we’re saying, oh, we’re going to throw away our investment. I think it’s self-defeating to do that, so I think we need to pass the legislation because many of these are talented young people who will contribute tremendously to our society. And, by the way, HACU is leading a major national coalition to push for the passage of that act and all those who wanted (sic) to write to your senators can do it in five minutes if you go to Again, It’s a dedicated website that we created for that purpose and you have all the tools there to write to your senators wherever you are across the country.

CAVANAUGH: And in the very short time we have left, Dr. Flores, what are some of the other legislative policies that you’ve going to be talking about and perhaps pushing for during this conference?

DR. FLORES: We’re going to obviously discuss very extensively the No Child Left Behind reauthorization that is coming up in the next Congress because we need to change the law so that it doesn’t continue to rely so overwhelmingly on testing as the only means to appreciate, to assess, student performance and the quality of education. But more importantly, from the standpoint of our assertion, we need to have Spanish legislation for Hispanic selected institutions to be supported by the federal government, to create centers of excellence in teacher education and in administrator education so that they can produce, they can prepare the next generation of the best and brightest teachers in our country as well as principals and superintendents that we need so much. We are going to emphasize as well the whole area of green jobs, especially in energy renewable resources because our institutions are located in areas of the country where solar, wind and other renewable resources are very much available and they can become a integral part of this new economy of green jobs.


DR. FLORES: Those are among the ones that we are going to tackle along with others.

CAVANAUGH: The 24th annual conference for the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, it takes place this weekend at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront, and the president of that association has been my guest. Dr. Antonio Flores, thank you so much.

DR. FLORES: Thank you so much, Maureen. Appreciate it.

CAVANAUGH: If you would like to go online, if we couldn’t take your call, please do and comment, Coming up, we get a preview of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival here in San Diego. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

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