Higher education attainment is essential to the success of Latino immigrants in the United States. This is due to a high school diploma no longer serving as the basic credential for successful employment (Fry, 2002). Moreover, because the majority of Latino immigrants work in low-wage occupations with little opportunity of upward mobility, children of Latino immigrants must attain access to the higher sectors of the economy through education if they wish to avoid the difficult economic hardships that their parents faced upon arrival to the United States (Abrego, 2009).
For example, students of Latino immigrant families living in the Los Angeles area encounter economic hardships throughout their lives, regardless of their legal status (Abrego, 2009). Dependent on low-wage labor, Latino immigrant families are restricted to crowded living conditions and often times live in dangerous neighborhoods. Accordingly, Latino immigrant students often report feeling unsafe in their neighborhoods due to the high rates of violence (Abrego, 2006). According to the Latino Studies department of the University of California in Los Angeles, “the local high schools [that Latino immigrant students attend] tend to be highly neglected sites of violence and general apathy” (Abrego, 2009). These living conditions that Latino immigrant youth experience throughout their primary and secondary educational career are factors that influence them to pursue a higher education (Abrego, 2009). But the most prevalent purpose of college for Latino immigrants stems from their determination to try to better their family’s economic situation, which often times leads Latino immigrant students to working full-time and studying part-time.
Latino immigrant working students see college as a way of decreasing economic need, but understand that work might take up more time than school in order to reach their dream of earning a degree. There is a very high labor force participation rate among Latino immigrants, which includes a large number of youth who are enrolled in college (Fry, 2002). Among low-skilled immigrant family members, household incomes of those students are usually built to acceptable levels by combining the earnings of other family members, which are also poverty-level wages (Fry, 2002). Therefore as a result of economic necessity, Latino immigrant students view working and studying as way to provide for their family in the now and in the future. Interestingly enough, this ethic of work and school is remarkably different among U.S-born Latino youth. U.S-born Latino youth [16 to 19 year old] are four times more likely to be in school and not work than their immigrant peers who came to the United States as adolescents (Fry, 2002). However, the strong commitment to work, family and school that both U.S.-born and non U.S-born Latino immigrants hold shows that they pursue a higher education regardless of the economic obstacles they encounter on the way (Fry, 2002). Overall, the majority of Latino immigrant students’ purpose of college is to have a future without working in low paying jobs (Perez, 2009). The high rate of Latino immigrants working while in school also shows why Latino immigrant youth decide to attend community colleges and why so few enroll into college full-time (Fry, 2002).
Family and community as well as the concern for economic need appear to be the main purposes for Latinos’ attendance at four-year colleges, but Latinos also present a high rate of enrollment in two-year insitutions for those same reasons. Community colleges are usually located near residential areas and rarely provide dormitories (Fry, 2002). Although the typical college student seeks separation and the chance to explore the world away from family, the Latino community puts much emphasis on close family ties, which is shared by most Latinos regardless of national origin or income (Fry, 2002). “Among Latino immigrants this often translates into an expectation that children will live with their parents until they marry,” (Fry, 2002). Among 18- to 24- year-olds, 44 percent of Latino undergraduates attend a two-year community college as opposed to approximately 20 percent of both white and black undergraduates (Fry, 2002).
Community college usually features many characteristics that explain their appeal to Latino immigrant students. First, there is the economic standpoint: “as a rule, tuition is lower compared to four-year colleges” (Fry, 2002). This is significant to Latino immigrants because according to the College Board, forty percent of Latino immigrants live below the federal poverty line (Gonzales, 2009). Second, “degree programs are often designed to accommodate part-time students, and classes are scheduled in the evenings to accommodate students with full-time jobs” (Fry, 2002). That way Latino immigrant students can continue to contribute to their family income and pursue a higher education in order attain a higher economic status for their family in the future. Thirdly, and most common, many Latino immigrant students view a greater purpose in attending a two-year institution rather than a four-year college because community colleges offer courses that aim more at improving job skills rather than at advancing toward a degree (Fry, 2002)s. This becomes a great purpose for Latino immigrant students because the skills acquired at a two-year institution can benefit Latino immigrants much faster than at a four-year institution since their families often depend on “hands-on” (electrician, computer technician, etc.) job-skills to contribute to their family income (Fry, 2002).
According to Frances Contreras’ study of undocumented students and higher education, the undocumented sector of Latino immigrant students possess the persistence of ganas, or determination, in order to achieve an economic status to help their families (Contreras, 2009). Contreras states that like many Latino immigrants, undocumented students show determination to succeed with their work ethic. Contreras writes that undocumented students work diligently in restaurants, cleaning offices and construction work, all while studying, in order to pursue their dream of earning a college degree in order to improve their family’s economic status (Contreras, 2009). However, some undocumented students’ purpose of college is not only to give back to their family.
Contreras states that the determination to achieve a higher education is also seen in undocumented students’ goal to give back to their communities (Contreras, 2009). Contreras states that it is typical for undocumented students not only to work and study, but also be active in community service work. Most of the undocumented students Contreras interviewed said that because of their lack of knowledge about postsecondary education when they were in high school, they view college as an opportunity to gain knowledge and share that knowledge with undocumented high school students about the college process (Contreras, 2009). For example, some undocumented college students conducted workshops in Spanish for Latino high school students and their parents and informed them about the process of applying for college. Prior to their help, the undocumented high school students, like the undocumented college students conducting the meeting, were informed that undocumented immigrants could not attend college (Contreras, 2009). Another example of viewing college as a way to help others is Alejandro: a third year undocumented college student at the University of Washington. Alejandro pursues to become an attorney in order to help undocumented immigrants overcome the injustice posed upon them in the United States (Contreras, 2009).
Overall, we can conclude that like many students who pursue a higher education, Latino immigrant students view college as a way to better their economic status, as well as a way to pay back their families. Additionally, Latino immigrant students seek the intrinsic rewards of obtaining a college degree. Thus college not only serves as a way to be certified in order to obtain a high salary, rather it serves as a place to become more knowledgeable to help one’s community. And in the case of undocumented immigrants, college serves as a place to help those who are treated unjustly due to their migratory status in the United States.