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Minority enrollment up at state universities

Asian students lead the trend, while Latinos, Oregon's fastest- growing minority, lag behind

Monday, July 31, 2000

By Steven Carter of The Oregonian staff

Minority students are enrolling in Oregon's public universities at record rates, exceeding the percentage of minorities in the state's overall population.

But the impressive numbers mask the bad news: Latinos, Oregon's fastest-growing minority, lag far behind in college enrollment. Asian Americans -- the most populous minority on campuses, with numbers nearly double those of Latinos -- are the reason the overall minority rate is high.

Between 1991 and 1999, the latest year for which figures are available, the percentage of minorities on the seven state campuses increased from 10 percent to 12.5 percent of total student enrollment. That compares with a state minority population of 11.2 percent in 1998, the latest population estimate available.

Further, the percentage of African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and Latinos held even or increased, for the most part, between 1991 and 1998 at all campuses: Portland State, Oregon State, University of Oregon, Southern Oregon, Western Oregon, Eastern Oregon and Oregon Institute of Technology. The figures are reported in a new Oregon University System study

of diversity.

To Shirley Clark, vice chancellor for academic affairs, the numbers are gratifying, but the job isn't finished.

"I would characterize the gains as slow and steady," Clark said. "The institutions have worked very hard to achieve those gains."

Nearly 500 new students of color were added to the total college enrollment between 1998 and 1999. That brought total minority enrollment to 8,441 out of 67,347 students.

But Clark and others acknowledge that the ratio of minority faculty members lags behind the ratio of minority students, and that Latinos remain the most underrepresented group on Oregon campuses, as they do across the nation.

Fewer faculty members, too Latinos make up about 5 percent of all Oregonians but only 3.2 percent of students on the seven campuses. They make up only 2.4 percent of full-time faculty.

The percentages of Latino students may change soon, however. Applications from Latinos are up 40 percent this year at the University of Oregon and 12.4 percent at Portland State University. PSU has admitted 92 freshman Latinos for next fall.

Colleges are stepping up efforts to recruit Latinos. For the first time next year, the UO will print application instructions in Spanish. Western Oregon University in Monmouth started an Upward Bound program aimed at steering disadvantaged high school students, most of them minorities, into higher education.

And PSU recently established a scholarship program targeting students from migrant families in Washington County through a $1 million donation from a retired lawyer and his wife, Bill and Martha Schwenn of Hillsboro. In addition, PSU's Upward Bound program has hired a Spanish-speaking coordinator in the Hillsboro area to more effectively recruit Latino high school students.

Admissions directors and minority recruitment officers say minorities face barriers to college, especially Latinos. While Latino applicants speak English, sometimes their parents do not. That makes understanding the complexities of college life difficult for some Latino parents. And Latinos' close-knit family life sometimes makes allowing a son or daughter to live miles away for most of the year an uninviting prospect.

First-generation college students Anna Hernandez, multicultural student services director at Western Oregon, says college is an unfamiliar concept for some Latino families, particularly recent immigrants. Colleges must reach out to help Latinos become familiar with higher education.

"A large percent of the Latino students we get are first-generation college students," she said. "Many times, we are their only support in taking the steps it takes to get to college. It can be an unknown world at home."

John Cardenas, 25, a junior at Portland State, said he was the only Latino in his class to graduate from North Salem High School.

"All my Latino friends dropped out," he said. "Every one of them."

Latinos drop out of high school in Oregon at roughly 15 percent a year, the highest dropout rate of any racial or ethnic group.

Emilio Hernandez, a State Board of Education member and director of a UO program aimed at getting migrant Latino high school dropouts back on track, thinks Oregon public schools aren't preparing Latino children well enough to meet the entry requirements for college. Those who do make the grade often struggle without getting the counseling and academic help they need, he said.

Cardenas is the first member of his family to go to college, and he is working to make sure other young Latinos follow. As a member of the campus chapter of Oregon Leadership Institute, he mentors high school students. The group brings young students on campus once a week for programs and get-togethers.

PSU's Upward Bound provides tutors for high school students from Hillsboro and Portland and offers them a six-week summer program, based at PSU, in which they take academic courses, visit other campuses and learn about scholarships and financial aid. A dozen of the PSU Upward Bound students are Latinos.

"Upward Bound has helped me a lot," says Maray Fernandez, 15, who speaks with the accent of her native Cuba. On the island, she was one of the best students in school. In Portland, at Marshall High School, her struggles with English held her back. After 15 months in Upward Bound, her English is expanding rapidly and her grades are improving.

Both Fernandez and Juanita Alvarado, 16, another Marshall student, say college is on their agenda.

"I don't know which college I'll go to or what I want to be, but I know I'll go," Alvarado said.