Many Texas Minorities Are Priced Out of College
By Kristyn Renfro and Emily Jiminez
For Reporting Texas
Juliet Pequeno, the youngest of six children, works at a fast food restaurant to pay her tuition at Richland Community College. She’d like to attend a four-year school such as the University of North Texas. But for now, that’s just a dream for the 20-year-old, who lives with her parents in Richardson.
“When I looked into UNT, it was too expensive. It was basically my whole check,” she said.
Many young Hispanics and blacks in Texas struggle to get a college education and a good job. They are part of a generation — of any race or ethnicity — grappling with a tight job market, rising tuition and heavy debt. But minorities endure even higher unemployment rates and are less likely to get a college degree than whites are.
The unemployment rate for white Texans in 2013 was 5.6 percent, compared to 10.7 percent for blacks and 6.9 percent for Hispanics. And the unemployment rate for all Texans between the ages of 18 and 24 was dramatically higher than that for other age groups, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Nationally, among people 18 to 24 years old, about 15 percent of Hispanics and 25 percent of blacks were unemployed in 2013, compared to 12.4 percent of whites, according to childstats.gov, which collects statistics on families and young people.
About two-thirds of the white students who enrolled in one of Texas’ public universities in the fall 2007 semester had earned a bachelor’s degree by fall 2013. That compares to about two out of five black students and about half of the Hispanic students, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
Only five percent of black and Hispanic men attending community colleges earn certificates or degrees in three years, compared to about 33 percent of white students, a recent report from researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found. The findings in “Aspirations to Achievement: Men of Color and Community Colleges” were based on survey responses from more than 450,000 students nationwide.
Studies also show that a disproportionately high number of minority students end up in debt.
“Students of color, particularly African Americans, are graduating with more student debt: 27 percent of black bachelor’s degree recipients had more than $30,500 in debt compared to 16 percent for their white counterparts.” according to “The Student Debt Crisis,” a Center for American Progress study published in 2012.
The bottom line, say experts in Texas, is that for many minority students getting to college – and affording to stay there – remains an elusive dream. “Sometimes black kids and other minorities, especially Latinos, might start school, but they don’t have the resources that white families often have. So you might start school but you may not be able to afford to stay there,” said Kevin Cokley, director of UT’s Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis.
Juan Villegas made his family proud by graduating from high school, but he is not going to a university, nor are most of his friends. “Probably nine out 10 friends I can think of off the top of my head – only one of them went to a university,” said Villegas, 22, who lives with his parents and two older sisters in Houston.
Although Villegas was accepted by Texas Tech University, he’s working at a daycare center because he hasn’t been able to save enough to pay for college. That’s a big frustration for Villegas and his family, which supports his dream of getting a college degree. He could have deferred his acceptance at Tech, but he decided to attend community college until he can save enough money to attend a university.
“They are behind me 100 percent, and that’s all in spirit,” he said. “Financially, they really can’t back me because both my parents didn’t go to college. My father is a middle school dropout, and my mother is a high school dropout.”
Villegas said he didn’t borrow money for his education because of “mostly fear” after he’d seen his mother struggle with debt as he was growing up.
“Whenever my mother had to take out a loan for a few hundred bucks, it was really hard for her to pay back. And I remember those times being particularly harder for my family,” he said.
His predicament is something educational experts have seen over and over again. All races and ethnicities have an equally high desire to get into college. “I haven’t found that minorities have any less of a desire to go to school,” Cokley said.
For now, Villegas is trying to get into community college, and he thinks a lot about his future.
“I want to be able to have a job that I really enjoy, where I’m working with things I really want. I want to be able to support myself and support my family and everybody that I can,” Villegas said.
After graduating from Houston’s Worthing High School, the same school that Villegas attended, Dalissia Tezeno took a different path. She earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of Houston, where she won scholarship support.
Now the 24-year-old is trying to get over the next hurdle. She is struggling to finance a law school education at her alma mater.
She works as a dispute resolution case manager from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then goes to her law classes from 6 to 10 p.m. She says she’s been told that trying to hold down a full-time job while attending law school isn’t a good idea.
“I just feel like everything is what you make of it … how much you put into trying to get the most out of it,” she said.
Tezeno said she thought long and hard about college debt, even in high school. “I kind of feel like I was only prepared because I took the initiative,” she said. “But if you are just the average student going and not necessarily taking that initiative, I don’t think you would have been prepared.”
Tezeno said the “college access coordinator” at her high school was a good resource who “always had scholarships lined up and (was) very supportive in helping us apply for them.”
Villegas says neither his high school nor his family helped him much with aid and scholarships. “Nobody in my family’s been to college, so I didn’t even really know about signing up or anything. It was really overwhelming,” he said.
Some high schools in Texas are trying new things to help minority students such as Villegas prepare for college and the attendant debts.
Lewisville High School uses a program called AVID – Advancement Via Individual Determination. An intensive training program with rigorous application process, AVID helps prepare students for college. The original AVID program was started in the early 1980s by a California teacher who wanted to help inner city students.
Minorities account for 85 percent of Lewisville’s AVID students, and many may become the first in their family to attend college, said Debbie Lewis, a counselor at Lewisville High School.
AVID students complete college entrance requirements at a rate of 2.5 times higher than U.S. students overall, according to program data.
Texas high schools are supposed to have the same funding, staffing and facilities, but in reality there is still a great imbalance, said David Hinojosa, Southwest regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
“When you fund schools differently based on what side of the track students live on, you’re affecting their educational opportunity,” said Hinojosa.
The disparities are often stark in Texas cities.
At Highland Park High School in Dallas, where nine of 10 students is white, no students were identified as “economically disadvantaged” – eligible for free or reduced-price meals under the National School Lunch and Child Nutrition Program. About 14 miles to the southeast, at Dallas’ W.W. Samuell High School, minorities make up 99 percent of the student body, and at least 80 percent are classified as economically disadvantaged.
Many minority students say they just want the same opportunities as anyone else, and that dropping out of high school was never in the cards.
Pequeno says she was always determined to go to college. She works more than 40 hours a week at a McDonalds. She wants to save the money so she can transfer from community college to a four-year-college near Dallas.