I was recently invited to attend a press conference on a report by the College Board, which featured its president, Gaston Caperton, along with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Miami-Dade College president Eduardo J. Padrón. But before I showed up, I was given a dismal warning: The report wasn't good for Hispanics.
Only a few weeks after the Pew Hispanic Center reported a 24 percent increase in Hispanic college enrollment from 2009 to 2010, we are once again facing the problem of retention: Getting Latino students to persevere beyond that first critical year of college.
The presentation was at Miami-Dade College, and when the floor was opened for questions, I asked one that seemed politically incorrect:
"Are you thinking of ways to help high school guidance counselors understand more about Hispanic culture so that they not only encourage students to attend two-year schools but also to attend four-year schools? We all know that the graduation rate from four-year colleges tends to be much higher (55 percent for public four-year schools and 65 percent for private four-year schools vs. 26 percent for community colleges, including those who received either an Associate's or a Bachelor's degree within 6 years of enrollment).
"And in terms of Hispanic unemployment," I continued, "there is a big difference in the unemployment rate of people with four-year degrees (6.1 percent) and those with a high school diploma or an Associate's degree (10.1 percent and 10 percent, respectively)."
If looks could kill, I wouldn't be writing this column.
There was a palpable discomfort in the audience. A woman in front of me even turned around to give me the evil eye.
Dr. Padrón, a well-respected education leader and chairman of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans, responded that the key is to encourage students to continue their post-high school education in any form, and that community colleges are a great alternative. He said his college has a high graduation rate as well as a high percentage of students who transfer to four-year universities.
Without a doubt, Dr. Padrón's work at MDC has been at the forefront of college education and, I admit, I could have phrased my question better. I really do value the wonderful opportunities that community college system offer.
Dismissing their valuable role in education was not my intention. But I wanted to highlight the fact that, nationally, a much smaller percentage of students graduate from these schools than from four-year colleges. I also wanted to bring attention to the fact that many of those dropouts are Hispanic students who are too often steered toward two-year schools irrespective of their academic profile, their career goals, and the support of their families to study away from home.
I have met more than my fair share of academically talented students who have been ill advised.Take Jessica Cervantes, a student who dreamed of going to Harvard. Jessica had won several major business-writing competitions, had a patent pending for a product she created, and a 4.0 GPA. She was advised by her guidance counselor to attend a community college and then transfer to Harvard.
The only problem was that Harvard doesn't take transfer students. She's now transferring to Columbia.
Community colleges are a great option for a lot of students, and in times of economic difficulties and soaring tuition costs, they can be a good way to afford education.
But what I'd like is for these colleges to be presented as an option by guidance counselors, educators and leaders - not as the only alternative for Latinos.
I see nothing wrong with helping high school guidance counselors to expect the same level of accomplishments from their Hispanic students as they do from non-Hispanics.
So why the negative reaction to my question?
Aren't statistics painting a picture that the higher the expectations, the higher the accomplishments?
This column has previously appeared on FoxNewsLatino.
Follow Mariela Dabbah on Twitter: www.twitter.com/marieladabbah