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As a freshman at Cal State San Marcos, Cipriano Vargas’ grades were so low, his part-time job waiting tables so consuming and his home life with eight siblings so chaotic that he nearly dropped out.The first-generation college student and son of parents with an elementary school education struggled to maintain a 1.9 grade-point average.

“I didn’t have the skill or ability to manage time,” said Vargas, 21. “My parents didn’t understand the complexity of going to college, that it wasn’t just two hours of classes and then I’m back home. And living with my brothers and sisters, it became very distracting to do homework.”

His experience mirrors that of millions of other Latino students who are attending colleges and universities in record numbers but who face vast obstacles on the road to graduation.

While Latinos make up 38 percent of California’s population, they trail all other ethnic groups in completing college, according to a report released recently by the Campaign for College Opportunity, a California advocacy group.

About 11 percent of Latinos age 25 or older have earned bachelor’s degrees, compared with 30 percent of all Californians, 39 percent of whites in the state, 23 percent of African-Americans and 48 percent of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, the report said.

Latino students face a number of socioeconomic challenges, said Roberto Suro, director of the Tomas Rivera Public Policy Institute at the University of Southern California. Many are from first generation, low-income families who face pressure to contribute to the family income. They also are less likely to move away from home to attend college. Research suggests such a move tends to benefit some students.

“What is tragic is that you invest 12 years into people to get to the point to where they can enroll in college, and we know that the difference in completing a bachelor’s is enormous in terms of life outcomes – and at that point, at the end of the race, in the last two years of a person’s education, we just stop caring and we fail them,” Suro said. “To me, that’s a policy issue.”

There is an increasing focus on how to improve outcomes. Community colleges recently launched a score-card system so that students and others can obtain graduation rates and other information from all 112 campuses, broken down by ethnicity and other factors.

A collaboration in Long Beach also is showing promise in improving enrollment and graduation rates. It helps prepare K-12 students with a more rigorous college-prep curriculum and offers a free semester of tuition at Long Beach City College and guaranteed admission to Cal State Long Beach.

Educators in East Los Angeles want to replicate that model and are set to launch a pilot program next fall.

Many details are still be to worked out. But the goal is to create a “college-going culture” in the region, said East Los Angeles College President Marvin Martinez.

In Vargas’ case, campus clubs helped pull him through rough times. Vargas participated in the College Assistance Migrant Program, a federal project that provides services such as counseling, tutoring and financial assistance to students.

A sociology major, he eventually got a job in student government, which stoked a growing interest in education policy.

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown named Vargas to one of two student positions on the Cal State Board of Trustees. Vargas earned a 3.8 GPA last semester, he said. One of his goals is to devote more resources to student support services for the kinds of mentors and advisers who were key to his progress.

“I think it’s especially important to have faculty who have gone through similar experiences and are representative of the community,” Vargas said.