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Family Support, Responsibilities Ground College Experience For Latino Students In San Antonio

A University of Texas at San Antonio graduate is celebrated by her family during UTSA's May 2021 Commencement Drive.
Camille Phillips
Texas Public Radio
A University of Texas at San Antonio graduate is celebrated by her family during UTSA's May 2021 Commencement Drive.

Lee esta historia en español.

There’s a perception in San Antonio that the city’s low college-going rate — especially among Latinos — is in large part due to family and community expectations.

School counselors and college advisers talk about the need to convince both students and parents that college is possible because no one in their family has gone before. Education leaders and scholarship providers say Latino families often expect their children to enter the workforce after high school because that’s what their parents and grandparents did.

However, the vast majority of Latino students enrolled in one of San Antonio’s public institutions of higher education say they were encouraged to go to college by their family.

In a survey TPR sent this spring to currently or recently enrolled students, 85% of Latino respondents said their parents encouraged them to go to college. Black, white and Asian students had equally high rates of parental encouragement, even though they were more likely to have parents who went to college. More than 2,600 students responded to the survey.

TPR’s survey found age to be a greater influence on family expectations than race and ethnicity. The older a student was, the less likely they were to have a parent who encouraged them to go to college, regardless of race.

More than 90% of both white and Hispanic students under the age of 26 said their parents encouraged them to go to college. That number dropped to 85% for students 26 to 30 years old.

Less than 60% of Hispanic students between the ages of 31 and 45 said their parents encouraged them. A higher percentage of older white students received parental encouragement, but the difference wasn’t as statistically significant as the difference between younger and older students of the same race.

Family Expectations

Deniff Lara is one of the more than 500 Latino survey respondents who said their parents encouraged them to go to college even though their parents didn’t go to college themselves.

“I was always encouraged, from a young age, to get higher education,” said Lara, 19. “I think at a certain point everyone hopes to go to college and wants to go to college, but it doesn't always happen that way.”

Lara enrolled at the University of Texas in San Antonio last fall after she received enough scholarships and need-based grants to pay for tuition, fees and books.

“My mom gave me the emotional support I needed to just carry on and get into college. I think that's the hardest part, just getting into college,” Lara said.

According to Vanessa Sansone, it’s not just local educators who sometimes think students aren’t going to college because their parents don’t want them to go.

“(I know) from the national research counselors tend to answer in that way. But stepping back, is it really?” said Sansone, an assistant professor of education policy at UTSA. “Is it really parents, or is it the fact that you have a caseload of 1,000 students (that) you're trying to serve and the limited funding that you now have in this legislative cycle? (Maybe) you had to let go of all your college access workshops, and maybe even (college counselor) positions.”

“It's easy to blame parents a lot of times, but I always try and see if there's a deeper story there,” Sansone said, adding that the high rate of parental support in the survey is probably influenced by the fact that the survey participants were in college.

“When you have a parent that is supportive, regardless of a student's racial background, that kid is much more likely to go.”

While family support is a major factor in whether or not a student goes to college, Sansone said structural barriers also play a big role. For instance, if a parent doesn’t speak English, they’ll have a harder time filling out the federal application for student aid.

That’s what happened to Lara, who grew up on San Antonio’s near North East Side. Her mom cleans houses for a living and doesn’t speak English.

“I'm a first-generation (college student). I knew practically nothing of, like, how to get here (and) how it works,” Lara said. “(The financial aid office and my school counselor) had to do all the work for me. Like, I think my counselor did my FAFSA for me.”

Lara lives at home with her mom and goes to school full time. She works part-time as a language tutor online. She said making it to college required a lot of persistence on her part and a lot of help from both her high school counselor and UTSA’s financial aid office.

Tool Against Poverty

According to Amanda Martinez of the civil rights organization Unidos US, family is top of mind for Latino students throughout their college career.

“As they're deciding to go to college, family is always a part of that decision making process. And even when they're enrolled, their family is in the back of their mind,” Martinez said. “Part of that journey for them is managing their family and figuring out how to invest in themselves, but also kind of redirect money or figure out how to add additional income to support their family.”

A focus group conducted by Unidos US found that Latino families, especially families who moved to the United States within the last generation, highly value education.

“They view it as a tool,” said Martinez. “It's a tool and it's a weapon to help protect against poverty. It's this tool for social and economic mobility."

Martinez said immigrant parents often come to the United States so their children can be better off, and they see college as part of that path. In turn, their children see college as a way to give back to their families.

“There was never a question in their mind (that college was something they had to do for their families),” Martinez said. “But then once they started the process, then it was like, ‘Oh wow, as a first-generation college student, this is much more difficult than I thought it was going to be.’”

Martinez said Latino students in the Unidos US focus group were highly motivated and had a lot of encouragement from their parents, “but when it came to the technicalities, they just didn't have the social or cultural capital. And the institution usually didn't provide the social or cultural capital to help them navigate this new system.”

Northwest Vista College student Jose Alfaro said his parents always expected him to go to college. His mom is from Slovakia and his dad is from Costa Rica. They both have post-secondary certifications from their home countries.

“They've just been a huge help to us growing up, going to school and everything. So, I'd like to be able to pay them back for all of that,” said Alfaro, 23. “I'm not going to be able to do that all too well on a delivery driver salary.”

Alfaro enrolled at St. Mary’s University in 2015, right out of high school, but dropped out after his first year. He worked full time at a gas station across the street from St. Mary’s, and his grades took a hit.

“Everything was super rigorous, super tough and just needed a lot of studying outside of class,” Alfaro said. “Working overnights and then having morning classes just didn't really give me a lot of time to sleep or anything, which probably added to the mess that was going on.”

He stepped away from college for a few years, and began working as a dispatcher for a trucking company.

“I didn't want to disappoint (my parents),” Alfaro said. “That is one of the things that eventually led to me going back.”

He returned to college in January 2020, enrolling in a community college first to ease himself back into academics slowly.

“(I) managed to get into the mental state where I realized I'll actually have to study and do more outside of class and stop working full time. And it's helped a lot,” he said. “This time around, I'm just delivering with Uber Eats, so it really allows me to make my own schedule… If I need extra time to study I can cut back on how much I'm working.”

Alfaro is the second oldest of five children, and two of his younger siblings are also in college. While he was out of college, he helped his family make ends meet. His dad lost his eyesight a few years ago and had to stop working.

“I don't want to say (that) was a huge factor delaying me going back to college, but when I was doing that, it was 48 hours a week, so I didn't really have time,” Alfaro said. “Once my (older) sister managed to graduate from college and she started working, she was able to start helping more with the bills. So that allowed me to start looking into going back to college.”

Family Responsibilities

While Latino students are just as likely as students of other races and ethnicities to be encouraged by their parents to go to college, TPR’s survey found that Latino students are more likely to be responsible for helping their family pay the bills.

Out of the more than 1,200 survey respondents who said they both work and go to school, almost 55% of Latino students said part of their paycheck is used to help pay family bills. Meanwhile, only 42% of white students contribute to family expenses.

Katelynn Ibarra, 20, works full time at a call center while studying psychology at Palo Alto College. Her biggest motivation to stay in school is to help her family live comfortably in the future.
Camille Phillips | Texas Public Radio
Katelynn Ibarra, 20, works full time at a call center while studying psychology at Palo Alto College. Her biggest motivation to stay in school is to help her family live comfortably in the future.

Palo Alto College student Katelynn Ibarra started working full time at a call center a year ago, after her mom lost her job. Her mom’s health has deteriorated due to complications from diabetes, making it hard for her work.

“She's always bedridden because she has really bad neuropathy on her feet, and she can't move,” Ibarra said. “So I took the role of head of household, and I just worked full time to provide.”

Ibarra, 20, juggles a full-time course load and a full-time job with taking care of her mother. She’s able to find the time for classes because they’re all online right now.

“My biggest motivation is just to live comfortably. Never on your last dollar,” Ibarra said. “We live with my great aunt, and we only have a tiny room. I would like to have a higher education to make enough money to have a livable lifestyle.”

Her mom can’t drive anymore, so she takes her anywhere she needs to go. They recently had to go to the hospital because her mom broke her toes.

“Because she has neuropathy, (she) can't feel (her) feet. So she must have, like, stubbed them or something,” Ibarra said. “She doesn't know how because she can't feel it.”

Ibarra graduated from Southwest High School in 2019. Her younger brother is a student there now. She said college was always her plan.

“I never wanted to just graduate and pop into the workforce and just look for something (to earn a paycheck instead of finding a job I like),” Ibarra said. “The job I want to do is in psychiatry for psychology, so of course I came to school, because that's the only way to get on that pathway.”

“I really like mental health and the insights of the mind,” Ibarra said. “Like, when it comes to relationship attachment types, how people are brought up, what makes people the way they are. That's always interested me.”

She said her mom supported her dreams, but didn’t demand she go to college.

“I didn't really get that much of like, ‘You have to go’ or ‘You need to.’ It's just, it was preferred. I chose to go to college,” Ibarra said.

She said Latino students like her contribute to the family bills because living together and supporting each other is part of their culture.

“(Latino children) help with the family bills as well (as their personal bills) because the house is united as one,” Ibarra said. “Usually the kids stay with their parents in the house until they get married.”

UTSA professor Vanessa Sansone said the added financial responsibility experienced by Latino students in San Antonio makes sense, because family earnings tend to be collective in Latino households.

“It's not just working for pay even. Even when they have a full ride they're still thinking of, ‘How do I get some of this to my family?” Sansone said. “There's empirical research that shows that even students who receive full funding scholarships or full funding grants… will save that money and give it to their families.”

This is the third story in a series of stories based on TPR's 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.

TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.

Camille Phillips can be reached at camille@tpr.org or on Instagram at camille.m.phillips. TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.