Education took center stage at the American Latino National Summit

The education of Latino students took center stage at the opening day of the American Latino National Summit on Tuesday. The two-day summit, hosted by…

(From left to right) Ana Guzman, president emerita of Palo Alto College; Antonio Flores, president and CEO of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities; Juliet Garcia, president of the University of Texas at Brownsville; Ricardo Romo, president of the University of Texas at San Antonio; and Marvin Martinez, president of East Los Angeles College spoke Tuesday at an education panel. This was one of the three education panels hosted on the first day of the three-day American Latino National Summit. (VOXXI/Griselda Nevarez)

The education of Latino students took center stage at the opening day of the American Latino National Summit on Tuesday.

The two-day summit, hosted by the New America Alliance Institute in San Antonio, kicked off with three back-to-back panel discussions over education. The experts who participated on the panels agreed that while Latinos have made significant strides in education over the last few years, there’s still a long way to go.

For example, they noted that while the high school graduation rate among Latino students is the highest it has ever been at 76 percent, it’s still much lower that it is for white students who have an 85 percent high school graduation rate. And while more Latino students are going on to college, not enough are graduating with college degrees.

Rep. Pete Gallego (D-Texas) said during one of the panel discussions that to make improvements, there has to be more emphasis on why improving the education of Latino students is so important.

“It’s our argument to make,” he said to a room full of educators and business leaders. “We have to convince people that this isn’t about whose kids we’re educating. It’s about our society … because the more people we educate, the better off we’ll be as a nation.”

SEE ALSO: American Latino National Summit to address issues affecting Latinos

Alejandra Ceja

Alejandra Ceja, executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, spoke Tuesday at the American Latino National Summit. (VOXXI/Griselda Nevarez)

At another panel discussion, Alejandra Ceja, executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, spoke about what the Obama administration is doing to close the Latino education gap. She said the administration is working to invest more in early learning and K-12 education, as well as making college more accessible.

However, Ceja insisted that “we cannot rely solely on the federal government to solve our problems.” She said one of the best ways to help close the Latino education gap and get more Latino students to go to college is by “bringing the business community to the table” and convincing business leaders to invest in the education of Latino students.

“If we don’t move the mark in terms of college completion for Latino students — and right now we’re at 15 percent, which is unacceptable — then we will have failed this country,” she said. “Economically, we play a key role in terms of where this country is going to be in the future competing globally.”

Tina Gridiron, senior strategy officer for the Lumina Foundation, echoed Ceja’s sentiment, saying, “Anything that we do to increase the preparation, access and success of Latino students in higher education will be a win for our country, a win for local communities and a win for states.”

But like several education experts pointed out on Tuesday, Latino students are facing many challenges that are keeping them from going on to college. Those challenges include attending underperforming schools, also known as “dropout factories.” Students who graduate from these schools are often not ready to go on to college.

SEE ALSO: The rising tide of Latino students in Texas

Marvin Martinez, president of East Los Angeles College, said this is very common among Latino students who live in East Los Angeles. He said these students are graduating from underperforming high schools and are testing into fifth grade math and reading levels.

“They’re not ready to take college-level courses,” Martinez said. “As a result, it takes them three to five years to graduate from community college.”

He added that many Latino students become discouraged and don’t graduate or transfer to a university.

When asked what East Los Angeles College is doing to change that, Martinez said his college recently partnered with K-12 educators from the area to come up with a program that encourages Latino students to start thinking about college at an early age. The program also persuades Latino students to start taking college courses while they’re still in high school.

“From the first grade on, we need to create that college culture in East L.A., a culture that doesn’t exist right now,” he said.

Ricardo Romo, president of the University of Texas at San Antonio, said another way to increase the number of Latinos who go on to college is by helping them have access to scholarships and other forms of financial aid. He said that the lack of money often prevents Latino students from going on to college.

“The resources are there,” Romo said. “We just have to shift the resources and shift the thinking and get a sense of urgency because we cannot continue on the path of not having successful students.”

SEE ALSO: Hispanics go to college, but do they actually graduate?