Higher education attainment is essential to succeed in the workplace and society. This is due to a high school diploma no longer serving as the basic credential for successful employment (Fry, 2002). Although many immigrant and non-immigrants seek a college education for a higher paying salary, the majority of Latino immigrants’ purpose of college is just that: to improve their economic status. This is due to the bigger economic hardships Latino immigrants encounter than the average American person. For example, the average income of Latino immigrant families is forty percent lower than that of native-born families in the United States (The College Board, 2010; Gonzales, 2009). Thus in order to attain access to the upper sectors of the economy, children of Latino immigrants must obtain a higher education if they wish to avoid the difficult economic hardships that their parents faced upon their arrival to the United States (Abrego, 2009).
One of those economic hardships is that because their dependent on low-wage labor, the majority of Latino immigrant families are restricted to crowded living conditions and often times live in dangerous neighborhoods. According to the Latino Studies Department of the University of California in Los Angeles, “The local high schools [located in predominately Latino immigrant communities] tend to be highly neglected sites of violence and general apathy,” (Abrego, 2009). These living conditions are factors that influence them to pursue a higher education (Abrego, 2009). But the most prevalent reason for going to college for higher salary purposes stems from their determination to try to better their family’s economic situation, which often times leads them 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 attending college as a way to provide for their family now and in the future. 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). For those, economic necessity defines their purpose of college: 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 institutions 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). Moreover, 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 colleges usually feature 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 many want to attain a higher education, but are at times restricted from one because of the high costs of tuition (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 to have 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). This becomes a great purpose for Latino immigrant students because the skills acquired at a two-year institution can benefit them during their pursuit of a higher education since their families often depend on “hands-on” (electrician, computer technician, etc.) job-skills to contribute to the family income (Fry, 2002).
Moreover, for any person who pursues the economic benefits of a college degree, there is always a concept of ganas. According to a Harvard University study of Latino immigrant students and higher education, those students possess ganas, or determination, in order to achieve an economic status to help their families (Contreras, 2009). Contreras writes that unlike the typical college students, immigrant 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 standing (Contreras, 2009). However, some undocumented students’ purpose of college is not only to give back to their family.
The determination to achieve a higher education is also seen in Latino immigrant students’ goal to give back to their communities (Contreras, 2009). Contreras states that it is typical for immigrant students not only to work and study, but to be active in community service work as well. Most of the immigrant students that Contreras interviewed at the University of Washington said that they hope to enlighten high school students with information about a postsecondary education. This is due because of their prior lack of knowledge about the college process while they were in high school (Contreras, 2009). Furthermore, some of the interviewed students conducted workshops in Spanish for Latino high school students and their parents to inform them about the process of applying for college. Prior to their help, most of the undocumented students at the meeting believed that they could not attend college due to their migratory status (Contreras, 2009).
Assisting Latino immigrants with regards to their migratory status is another reason why some Latino immigrant students pursue a higher education. These students pursue college to help their fellow immigrant peers and families by becoming part of the United States political system. Alejandro, a third year undocumented college student at the University of Washington hopes to become a licensed attorney as soon as he is able to become a documented resident of the United States. Alejandro’s main goal is to one day help undocumented immigrants and families overcome the injustice posed upon them in the United States, which he has experienced as well (Contreras, 2009).
Overall, we can conclude that like many students who pursue a higher education, Latino immigrants view college as a way to achieve a better economic status not only for them, but for their families as well. Additionally, Latino immigrant students seek the intrinsic rewards of obtaining a college degree. Some view college as a place to help those who are treated unjustly due to their migratory status in the United States, while others wish to become more involved in community service work. Thus college not only serves as a way to be certified in order to obtain a higher salary, but it serves as a place to become more knowledgeable to help one’s family and community.
Contreras, F. (2009). Sin Papeles y Rompiendo Barreras: Latino Students and the Challenges of Persisting in College. Harvard Educational Review, 79(4), 610-631. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.
Gonzales, R. (2009). Young Lives on Hold: The College Dreams of Undocumented Students. College Board Advocacy. Retrieved from Google Scholar database.
Fry, R. (June, 2004). Latino Youth Finishing College: The Role of Selective Pathways. Pew Hispanic Center. Retrieved from Google Scholar database.
Perez, W. (2009). We are Americans: Undocumented Students Pursuing the American Dream. Stylus Publishing, LLC.