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Why Hasn't San Antonio Closed Its Latino College Gap?

A college graduate wonders about family, loans and work.
Rob Martinez
Texas Public Radio
Through a fellowship with the Education Writers Association, TPR hired the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University-College Station to administer a survey and collect the results anonymously. The online survey was sent to students enrolled in one of the city’s public institutions of higher education within the last two years.

Lee esta historia en español.

The summer after her first year of undergrad at St. Mary’s University, Vanessa Sansone’s mom was laid off, and her dad had a heart attack. Hospital bills started piling up, and Sansone took on multiple jobs so that her family wouldn’t lose their house or their car. The only time she had to study was in the middle of the night.

“I thought I was going to have to withdraw,” Sansone said. “There were many times where I would, from a day-to-day, (think) ‘I don't know if I can do this.’”

Now an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio, her experience informs her research on access to higher education.

She managed to earn her bachelor’s degree, and eventually a doctorate, but she knows how easily it could have gone the other way — and how easily it does go the other way for many Latino students in south Texas.

“It shouldn't have been that difficult. I shouldn't have had to have worked three jobs. I shouldn't have had to be stressed and worried constantly,” Sansone said. “The systems are inequitable. And they're that way for a reason.”

According to U.S. Census data, just 17% of Hispanics in the San Antonio Metropolitan Area have a bachelor’s degree, well under half the rate of degree attainment for San Antonio’s white and Asian population. San Antonio’s Black population falls in between, but is also less likely to have a college degree.

These inequities have existed for generations, and despite years of targeted efforts to close the gap, remain largely unchanged. The City of San Antonio founded the San Antonio Education Partnership in 1989 to close gaps in higher education attainment, and yet, decades later, huge disparities remain.

San Antonio’s statistics mirror national education trends. But because San Antonio is 64% Latino, these disparities not only mean San Antonio is failing to adequately serve its most vulnerable, but also failing to ensure that the majority of its people have the credentials they need to build a career and earn a comfortable income.

At the same time, national research and conventional wisdom on the best ways to ensure success in college don’t fit the reality on the ground in San Antonio. Most of the focus is on four-year universities, but San Antonio’s largest institution of higher education is the Alamo Colleges District, a community college system.

The main metric used to judge a college’s effectiveness is its graduation rate, but that only counts full-time students enrolled in college for the first time. Most of San Antonio’s college students are part-time, and many of them are transfer students. And with the exception of South Texas, most universities aren’t serving a majority-Latino population.

To help fill the gap between conventional wisdom and the reality on the ground in San Antonio, TPR surveyed local college students to find out what their college experience is like, what’s helped them stay enrolled, and the biggest challenges they’ve had to overcome to earn their degree.

Through a fellowship with the Education Writers Association, TPR hired the Public Policy Research Institute 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 institutions of higher education within the last two years.

The goal of the survey was to gather data on finances and family — two factors Sansone said play essential roles in Latino students’ decisions about college. Since the survey was sent out during the spring 2021 semester, it also asked about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 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 anticipated. However, responses largely reflected the same demographic trends as the overall student population of the University of Texas at San Antonio, Texas A&M University-San Antonio and the Alamo Colleges.

Women, white students, students enrolled in the four-year universities and students 25 and older were over represented in the survey, but the majority of the respondents were Hispanic students. Half of respondents were eligible for need-based financial aid, and nearly half attend school part time. Just under half attend one of Bexar County’s five community colleges.

The survey found that Black and Hispanic students were more likely to encounter financial obstacles than white students did, but the vast majority of students, regardless of race and ethnicity, said their parents encouraged them to go to college. Black and Latino students were also more likely to be economically affected by the pandemic.

Sansone said the survey findings on finances, student loans, family responsibilities and expectations largely reflect the same trends she’s found in her research, and point to a need to reframe the parameters of what it means for a student to be successful.

“The characteristics of the students that we're serving here in South Texas are different, and come with unique needs, high needs, in many cases,” Sansone said. “This traditional way of doing things doesn't necessarily fit us, because that's not who our students are, or the best ways that they can be served.”

Rather than focusing on encouraging more students to graduate in four years, for instance, Sansone said colleges should be focusing on supporting students where they are and counting each graduation as a success, no matter how long it takes for a student to finish.

She also said it’s important to keep in mind the history and geography of San Antonio and how it influences race, ethnicity, class, and access to a college degree without making assumptions about what that history means for a student’s dreams and goals.

“South Texas is unique in that — going way, way back — there were already racial disadvantages tied into the land when the United States decided to just take over Texas,” Sansone said. “For many of these Latinx students, they come from a history of disadvantage (and) a legacy of injustice.”

Sansone pointed to Bexar County’s numerous school districts and stark economic disparities as an example of how those historic injustices affect San Antonio students today, making Latino students more likely to attend a school with fewer resources and less likely to be able to easily afford college.

In addition to longstanding inequities in higher education attainment, San Antonio also has big gaps in high school completion. Just 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 blowing, you know, the fact that (San Antonio’s Latino students make it to college) because there have been obstacles generationally that have been put there, to make it that much more difficult to attend higher education, let alone finish and graduate,” Sansone said.

The goal of TPR’s survey is to find out what makes it hard for those that do make it to stay enrolled — and what is helping them earn their degree.

This is the first in a series of stories based on a TPR survey on college access. Each story explores characteristics of the college experience for San Antonio’s Black and Latino students. The survey was made possible through a fellowship with the Education Writers Association and was administered by the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University-College Station.

Editor’s note: TPR consulted STATS Sense About Science, USA Director Rebecca Goldin to determine the best way to measure the statistical significance of survey findings. Due to the multiple questions included in the survey, no conclusions about the general student population were made in TPR’s reporting unless the p value was less than .0005. The survey instrument, anonymous survey response data and other statistical information is available for independent analysis here.

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