THE BLOG
09/30/2014 08:24 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

Diversity Leads to Success in Higher Education

When the White House proclaimed the third week in September "National Hispanic Serving Institutions Week," it articulated why we are working so hard at the University of California, Davis to secure that designation from the U.S. Department of Education.

"Our nation can strengthen our economy and have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020," President Obama's proclamation said, "but achieving this goal will require us to unlock the full talents and potential of every student."

In California, where growth in the Latino population recently made it the state's largest ethnic group, we are acutely aware of this imperative.

That's why several years ago, working with our admissions staff and educational partners throughout the region, UC Davis committed itself to becoming a Hispanic Serving Institution, or HSI, by the 2018-19 academic year.

To be eligible, our undergraduate student body must be at least 25 percent Latino. That would make UC Davis eligible for federal funds we could then invest in a variety of programs aimed at student success.

Exact numbers won't be available for a few more weeks, but our 2014-15 incoming freshman class -- our most diverse ever -- is expected to be 23.5 percent Hispanic, up from 20 percent last year. We still have work to do, just as we do in recruitment and retention of other underrepresented groups on our campus. But the overall trend lines are clear. For all UC Davis undergraduates last year, Hispanics were 18.5 percent, up from 14 percent in 2009, my first year as chancellor, and 11 percent in 2005.

We aren't working to becoming an HSI simply to secure additional funding. We're aggressively pursuing this goal because it's right for the state and our kids and because our shifting demographics make it clear that if California and the U.S. are to remain competitive, we can't afford to leave behind this growing population.

Today, more than 50 percent of California's K-12 students are Hispanic, as are one of two youths under 18. Various projections forecast the state's Hispanic population to move past 50 percent sometime around 2050. Among California high school graduates, Hispanics are the only ethnic group projected to show meaningful growth through the end of the decade. And according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, by 2019-20, Hispanics will make up 49 percent of California's high school graduating class, up from 40 percent in 2008-09.

"The math is clear," concludes a 2013 report by the Campaign for College Opportunity. "If the California economy is to have the college-educated workforce it needs, we must find ways to significantly improve college completion rates among Latinos. There is no other reasonable solution given the population dynamics of California today."

At UC Davis, we're approaching this challenge with multiple strategies. Proposition 209, passed by California voters in 1996, effectively banned affirmative action in college admissions. We are required to be race-neutral in admissions reviews, but we can be aggressive and strategic in recruitment and outreach.

We've stepped up recruitment efforts at community colleges, which already have the HSI designation. We are also signing more transfer admissions guarantees with students from those schools who want to transfer to UC Davis. Those are formal agreements that guarantee admission to UC Davis for transfer students meeting several important criteria, including specific courses completed and grades maintained.

We meet regularly with Latino middle and high school students and their families in a number of California communities to start them thinking about college and the kinds of careers a degree can help secure. Our outreach staff starts this process as early as kindergarten, working with youngsters from low-income families or families where no one has gone to college to get them excited about higher education.

As a public university, we see this as imperative for the reasons cited above. It must also be an imperative for California and our nation. We need to combine our best efforts to bring all our kids into the 21st Century global economy with the knowledge and skills they'll require to be successful.

We also know it's not enough to simply get more Latino students in the door. We have to make sure our students have the resources and support to do well on our campus and to graduate on time.

That's why we have strengthened student advising, English and writing programs, tutoring, mentoring and mental health services for students who need them.

When I was an electrical engineering major in my native Greece, I was one of two women in a class of 186. I never felt welcome or had any role models or mentors. Until I got my bearings and resolved to not give up, I gave serious consideration to dropping out.

We know students and faculty do better when they have teachers to identify with and who can serve as mentors. That's why we sought and were gratified to receive a three-year, $3.7 million National Science Foundation grant that allows us to hire additional Latina faculty in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

The grant is also helping us examine institutional and cultural barriers for Latino and other underrepresented faculty, and to come up with strategies to overcome them. We are committed to transforming the university's culture and practices around recruitment, retention and promotion of Latina women and other underrepresented STEM faculty so we become a sought-after destination for a world-class and diverse faculty.

When it comes to diversity of our faculty and students, the university has an obligation to reflect the demographics of California, while staying true to our standards of excellence in scholarship and research. We are proud of the work we're doing to get there and confident it will pay dividends for California and its future.

Note: Chancellor Linda Katehi will speak on diversity in education in Washington D.C. Wednesday at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's (CHCI) Hispanic Heritage Month 2014 Public Policy Conference.