The summer after her first year of undergraduate studies at St. Mary’s University, Vanessa Sansone’s mother was fired and her father suffered a heart attack. Hospital bills started to pile up and Sansone took on multiple jobs so her family wouldn’t lose their home or car. The only time she had to study was in the middle of the night.
“I thought I was going to have to retire,” Sansone said. “There were a lot of times I thought, day to day, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.'”
Now an assistant professor of educational policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio, her experience is fueling her research on access to higher education.
She managed to get her bachelor’s degree and then a doctorate, but she knows how easily it could have gone the other way – and how easily it can go the other way for many South Latin American students. from Texas.
“It shouldn’t have been that difficult. I shouldn’t have had to work three jobs. I shouldn’t have been constantly stressed and worried, ”Sansone said. “The systems are inequitable. And they’re like that for a reason.
According to U.S. Census data, only 17% of Hispanics in the San Antonio metro area have a bachelor’s degree, well under half the graduation rate for the white and Asian population of San Antonio. San Antonio’s black population falls in between, but is also less likely to have a college degree.
These inequalities have existed for generations and, despite years of focused efforts to close the gap, remain largely unchanged. The city of San Antonio founded the San Antonio Education Partnership in 1989 to address the gaps in higher education outcomes, and yet, decades later, huge disparities remain.
San Antonio statistics reflect national trends in education. But since San Antonio is 64% Latino, these disparities mean not only that San Antonio fails to adequately serve its most vulnerable, but also fails to ensure that the majority of its people have the skills they need to survive. build a career and earn a comfortable income. .
At the same time, national research and conventional wisdom on how best to ensure success in college does not match the reality on the ground in San Antonio. The focus is mostly on four-year universities, but the largest institution of higher education in San Antonio is the Alamo Colleges District, a system of community colleges.
The primary metric used to judge a college’s effectiveness is its graduation rate, but this only counts full-time students enrolled in the college for the first time. Most of the students at the University of San Antonio are part-time and many of them are transfer students. And with the exception of South Texas, most universities do not serve a predominantly Latin American population.
To help bridge the gap between conventional wisdom and the reality on the ground in San Antonio, TPR interviewed local students to find out what their college experience looked like, what helped them stay enrolled, and the biggest challenges they faced. they had to overcome. earn their degree.
Thanks to a scholarship with the Education Writers Association, TPR hired the Institute for Research on Public Policy at Texas A&M University-College Station to administer the survey and collect the results anonymously. The online survey was sent to students enrolled in one of the city’s public higher education institutions within the past two years.
The purpose of the survey was to collect data on finances and family – two factors, Sansone said, play critical roles in Latin American students’ decisions about college. Since the survey was sent in the spring semester of 2021, it also asked about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over 2,600 students responded to the survey, which was sent to their student email accounts. Due to the nature of the format, the low response rate of less than 2% was expected. However, the responses largely reflected the same demographic trends as the overall student body at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Texas A&M University-San Antonio, and the Alamo Colleges.
Women, white college students, college students aged four, and students 25 and older were overrepresented in the survey, but the majority of respondents were Hispanic students. Half of the respondents were eligible for need-based financial assistance and almost half attended school part-time. Just under half attend one of the five community colleges in Bexar County.
The survey found that black and Hispanic students were more likely to face financial barriers than white students, but the vast majority of students, regardless of race and ethnicity, said their parents encouraged them to go. at University. Black and Latino students were also more likely to be economically affected by the pandemic.
Sansone said the survey results on finances, student loans, family responsibilities and expectations largely reflect the same trends she found in her research and underscore the need to reframe the parameters of what signifies a student’s achievement.
“The characteristics of the students we serve here in South Texas are different and come with unique needs, high needs, in many cases,” Sansone said. “This traditional way of doing things is not necessarily right for us, because it is not who our students are, nor the best way to serve them.”
Rather than focusing on encouraging more students to graduate in four years, for example, Sansone said colleges should focus on supporting students where they are and counting every time. diploma as a success no matter how long it takes a student to complete.
She also said it was important to keep in mind the history and geography of San Antonio and their influence on race, ethnicity, class and access to a college degree without making assumptions about what this story means for a student’s dreams and goals.
“South Texas is unique in this sense – back then, a long time ago – there were already racial disadvantages linked to the land when the United States decided to take control of Texas,” Sansone said. . “For many of these Latinx students, they come from a history of disadvantage (and) a legacy of injustice.”
Sansone cited Bexar County’s many school districts and steep economic disparities as an example of how these historic injustices affect San Antonio students today, making Latino students more likely to attend school with less. resources and less likely to be able to afford college easily.
In addition to long-standing inequalities in success in higher education, San Antonio also has large gaps in high school completion. Only 76% of Hispanic adults have a high school diploma in San Antonio, compared to 95% of white adults and 92% of black adults.
“It’s almost mind-boggling, you know, that (the Latino students in San Antonio are coming to college) because there have been generational barriers that have been put there, to make it even more difficult to access to higher education, let alone the graduate, ”Sansone said.
The purpose of TPR’s survey is to find out what makes it difficult for those who do to stay enrolled – and what helps them graduate.
This is the first in a series of articles based on TPR’s University Access Survey. Each story will explore the characteristics of the college experience of black and Latino students in San Antonio.
Editor’s note: TPR consulted STATS Sense About Science, United States Director Rebecca Goldin to determine how best to measure the statistical significance of the survey results. Due to the multiple questions included in the survey, no conclusions about the general student body were drawn in the TPR reports unless the p-value was less than .0005.
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