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Latinos are a growing segment of the college applicant pool. Is ISU ready to serve them?

 A woman in a patterned dress and glasses, and a man wearing a black button down shirt with hands behind his back smile at the camera
Lauren Warnecke
Maura Toro-Morn, left, and James Pancrazio are faculty members at Illinois State University who developed a first-year curriculum supporting first-year, first-generation Latino students.

Faculty and staff at Illinois State University are preparing for an uptick in Latino students, the fasting growing demographic in a shrinking college applicant pool.

Researcher Mariana Barragan Torres spoke at a recent workshop at ISU organized by the Latin American and Latino Studies program. The theme of the day was, “What does ISU need to know about college-bound Latino students?” Torres is part of a work group with the Illinois Workforce and Education Research Collaborative (IWERC) that compiled literature reviews and conducted survey research on Latino student recruitment and retention in partnership with the Latino Policy Forum and Gov. JB Pritzker’s office.

“There is a lot of conversation about these demographic changes,” Torres said during her June 1 keynote address. “Birth rates are dropping, enrollments are dropping. Not only that, but freshman Illinois enrollment rates are also decreasing. If (enrollment is) this low when our population is high, can you imagine what’s going to happen when our population is decreasing?”

As Latino population increases in the U.S. and total population decreases, they will inevitably form a larger percentage of college applicants. Colleges and universities face declining enrollments nationwide (ISU bucked enrollment trends prior to the pandemic) and therefore cannot ignore the opportunity presented by an influx of Latino applicants.

That is especially true in Illinois, which places second-to-last in convincing high schoolers to remain in the state for college. Those who stay in-state are more likely to be first-generation college students from low-income Black and brown families.

Torres’ report also pointed to a disparity in graduation rates between Latino and white students. According to 2020 U.S. Census data, one in five Latinos has a college degree, but that rate has doubled over the past two decades.

“We think this is a great opportunity to think boldly about how we serve our students now, and in the future,” Torres said.

Spearheaded by the Communities of Belonging and Success (COBAS) initiative at ISU, faculty from several departments, plus admissions staff and administrators across campus gathered for their annual workshop on June 1 to discuss strategies for attracting Latino students to ISU — and supporting them once they arrive on campus.

COBAS is a first-year curriculum developed by professors Maura Toro-Morn and James Pancrazio. The summer workshop informs the COBAS program and drives strategy for recruiting, retaining and graduating first-generation Latino students.

“ISU knows a lot about college-bound Latino students, but what we know is changing very quickly,” said Toro-Morn, who also directs the Latin American and Latino Studies program at ISU.

“We need to rethink. What are some of the issues that the first-generation population of students are going to face when they come to a predominantly white institution?” added Pancazio. “What are some of the issues they find that make an undergraduate education complicated?”

Cost, community, proximity

Torres’ presentation cited survey research indicating that cost, a sense of community and proximity to family are prospective Latino students’ top priorities in choosing a college.

“A majority of Latinx students choose cost as the decisive factor,” she said. “That presents an opportunity to play a role in what students ultimately select.”

That could be good news for Illinois State that may not be able to compete on location for Latino students hailing from metro Chicago. However, COBAS established a partnership with Joliet West High School, whose student body is 40% Hispanic and Latino, to discover how close ISU is to home.

“We brought about 50 students to campus,” said Pancrazio. “One of the things we showed very quickly was that Illinois State is not very far from Joliet. It’s much more common for students to wind up in hours of traffic north of I-80 than it is down here. Most of the students were very surprised that Illinois State was so close.”

Recruitment tactics lost in translation

“When we’re recruiting Latino and Black students, we’re actually recruiting Latino and Black families,” said Toro-Morn. “We could be very intentional in terms of the advertisement that compels a student to look at ISU. That advertisement may not work for Latino, Black and other minority status families.”

A prospective student might speak English, but have parents who don’t, for example. Since choosing a college is a family affair, having bilingual admissions counselors who can speak directly to parents is critical.

Cultural norms also play a role in advertising a college experience. Pancrazio said ads aimed at “launching” students into their adulthood lean on a white, middle class construct that doesn’t translate into Spanish. The verb lanzar equates to throwing your kids out — not a great metaphor when the tether that binds Latino families is exceptionally tight.

“To recruit a student, it is going to be a journey that is not the student’s alone,” said Toro-Morn. “Latino students are always very connected to their families. Whether that is a disadvantage or an asset — we could debate that at another point. But the sense of community is very important.”

Pancrazio and Toro-Morn said en caminar, the Spanish verb for “to walk,” is a stronger image aimed at putting students “on the path.”

Faculty representation slow to catch up

Building community on campus also is an important value for Latino families when looking at colleges.

 A woman in glasses, light blue pants and white blouse speaks to a room of engaged listeners. Her slide show reads, "The landscape study. New in this presentation, survey findings from Illinois College-Going Student conducted by IWERC in partnership with the Office of Governor JB Pritzker."
Lauren Warnecke
Mariana Barragan Torres is a post-doctoral researcher at the Illinois Workforce and Education Research Collaborative. She is pictured giving a keynote address on college-bound Latino recruitment and retention to faculty and staff at Illinois State University.

“Most of the students were less impressed with our investment in architecture and more impressed with the investment we have in our own faculty,” said Pancrazio of the group from Joliet West. “Rather than have us explain to them that they can come to Illinois State University and compete with all the other institutions that are trying to attract them, we can also tell them how we as individuals made it through school.”

Progress toward Black and Latino faculty representation, however, is glacial compared to the demographics of the students they serve.

In a follow-up interview, Torres said IWERC's data did not include Latino faculty, because there aren't enough to generalize the data. According to a 2020 data set from the National Center for Education Statistics, Hispanics and Latinos are 6% of faculty nationwide.

“The trend in the student body composition is changing more rapidly than the faculty composition," she said. "However, there are other studies across the nation that have found that having a faculty member of your same race/ethnic background does improve your success at least in that course.”

Cultivating community on campus

With Latino student success tied to faculty connecting, the COBAS class Pancrazio and Toro-Morn developed is a key intervention for cultivating community and reducing rates of academic probation or withdrawal among first year, first-gen Latino students.

“What we wanted to focus on was areas of major strength and familiarity,” said Pancrazio. “Their parents are probably immigrants; they know that immigrant experience and we’re talking predominantly about what that experience means.”

COBAS students tend to be either functionally or passively bilingual, and may be heritage speakers who are fluent in a language other than English, but have no academic instruction in that language. English may not be the primary language spoken at home. Students are capable of “code-switching” culturally between Euro-American norms and those of their immigrant parents.

But with few faculty members of color to provide the one-on-one mentorship Black and brown students may need to thrive, risk of faculty burnout remains high.

“I try to add a bit of humor to it. If people are feeling burned out, it’s really a sign of their achievement,” Pancrazio said. “Only competent people burn out. If you’ve felt burnout, it’s because you’ve cared enough and you’ve put enough into it.”

After the keynote, the COBAS workshop held discussions with Maribel Diaz and Ariana Farias from Joliet West High School and Kim Taber from Bloomington District 87. Toro-Morn sees these connections as potential ways for prospective and current students of color to build community in Bloomington-Normal

“In the local schools, 40 different languages are spoken,” she said. “(District 87) services students that speak a multiplicity of languages. This helps us place a notion of community to incoming students that is more in keeping with the kinds of communities that they come from.

"Our community is very diverse. The university may not look very diverse, but it is increasingly clear to many of us that our surrounding community is very diverse and the opportunity that they will have here to see that diversity, to experience that diversity, and to have some of that diversity support their college experience, I think, is becoming even more evident.”

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Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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