Access and Outrage - Hispanic Today
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Access and Outrage

By on September 8, 2011

Access and Outrage CoverHispanic business and political leaders agree: We must work harder to encourage Hispanics to get a college education. Hispanic America, in part, seems to be moving in the right direction. Federal funding for Hispanic education is steadily increasing, and opportunities for mentoring and scholarships from the private sector are helping to provide greater opportunity for Hispanics. However, the struggle for those hoping to break out of a poverty lifestyle and reach middle class status is still intense, and that struggle is evident on community college campuses across the nation.

Antonio R. Flores, Ph.D., the president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), says of the state of Hispanic education in general, “Obviously we have seen a change for the better. But on a per student basis, Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI’s) receive about one third of what other colleges and universities receive from the federal government in terms of total funding.” Flores reports that currently, HSI’s are enjoying a Title 5 appropriation of $86 million, an amount that has grown steadily over the past few years, from only $28 million in 1999.

Flores reports that the private sector has neglected the needs of Hispanics for “too many years,” However, now I see a renewed effort on the part of the private sector to catch up,” he says. “This is probably because they see Hispanics as a main source of talent and expertise to meet the needs of business and industry. It is in their own best interest to invest heavily in our institutions.” For example, Flores says, IBM is working in partnership with HACU to provide products, services and support for HSI’s. “Still,” he says, “the amounts are small compared to what they give to other colleges and universities, so we have to continue working to catch up.”

The community college, where anyone with a high school diploma and a modest amount of money for tuition can find a stepping stone into employment, or into higher education and a four-year university, is the major engine that brings higher education to the Hispanic community. According to Flores, “Community colleges do a very good job in educating non-traditional populations that historically have not attended four-year institutions in significant numbers … populations that wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to attend post-secondary education.” However, community colleges typically receive less funding, while serving populations with greater obstacles to success such as language barriers, financial difficulty and the lack of family role models who have a college education, to name a few.

In spring 2001, Florida Governor Jeb Bush created a “superboard”, a 7-member Florida Board of Education, intended to abolish outdated policies and to remove barriers as students move from one phase of education to the next. Florida businessman Charles Patrick Garcia, the CEO of Sterling Financial, is one such appointee. Although Miami-Dade sustained deeper budget cuts than the state’s universities in a recent session of the state legislature despite Garcia’s recommendations, Garcia is not discouraged. He reports that the board has already convinced the governor to revise the budget to give back $25 million of the $37 million in funding that was lost. “I made the argument that it hurts Hispanics and African Americans more,” Garcia says, “The last thing we need to do is cripple that system unnecessarily. It’s a system that is doing the brunt of educating minorities.” Garcia plans to meet personally with legislators to lobby for Hispanic interests and to steadily gain influence. Currently, he is uniting the state’s most influential Hispanics from all walks of life and political parties, including television star Cristina, to form the “Hispanic 100,” a group of high-level individuals who will wield greater influence in making recommendations to legislators. Miami-Dade Community College in Miami, Florida, the largest HSI in the nation, is part of this statewide effort.

HT: Dr. Padrón, we know that in the state of Florida, Governor Jeb Bush basically abolished the board of education and decided to rebuild it from the ground up, creating a new education “superboard.” What changes are you seeing in Hispanic education because of that?

Padrón: It is yet to be seen. The goal is to provide for a “seamless” system of education which I support. The Governor appointed excellent people to the “superboard”. If an understanding is reached between the Legislature and the Board, the latter has the potential of addressing major education issues affecting Florida. However, if the Legislature deprives the Board of the opportunity to make major policy decisions, the Board will not be able to achieve its potential.

HT: What are the greatest concerns that you believe the legislature needs to address?

Padrón: First of all, it is my very strong belief that education is the key to moving ahead and incorporating the Hispanic population into the mainstream of American life. The only way that Hispanics are going to stop being second and third class citizens is by providing them with tools through education and training to be self-sufficient, to join the professional ranks, and to be able to reach middle class status through opportunities for better jobs. Frankly, what makes the United States unique is that democracy has allowed people to develop a very large middle class. Unfortunately, Hispanics are not part of that middle class to a great extent. Until we are able to do that, Hispanics are going to be relegated to third class status. So, as an educator, I am very concerned about these issues now.

In Florida, there are two main issues-the issue of access to education and financial aid. Most Hispanics come to us with a disadvantage to start with. They come mostly from low-income families, they are first-generation college students, and all the research has demonstrated that a student’s ability to succeed is correlated to whether or not a former family member has attended college. There are also correlations between income level and academic success. The language barrier is another challenge. Immigrants have to first have complete command of the English language before they can succeed in academic life.

In no way am I suggesting that Hispanics cannot succeed. However, these disadvantages provide a greater challenge for the students and for the institutions. So Hispanic serving institutions such as Miami-Dade have a real challenge. We need double and triple the amount of resources than other institutions, in order to meet the special needs of this population.

Additionally, many students come to us with total lack of knowledge of how the system works. Students and their families have to adjust to the academic climate. Many of them, on top of that, come academically unprepared. Either because of the failure of the high school system in this nation to prepare them well, or because they come from systems in other countries that did not prepare them well. So, the challenges are enormous. Because many of them are poor, they need financial aid. The availability of financial aid is crucial, and that’s one problem we are facing all over the nation, not just in Florida. Most of the money is going to people who are eligible for programs such as Hope Scholarships and Bright Futures, but not necessarily to the poorest students.

Now, we cannot spend our lives blaming others for our problems. I think it is very important that we all basically take responsibility among Hispanic leaders, Hispanic families, and the Hispanic media. We need to assume responsibility for setting the framework for the success of the students. First of all, to increase their understanding that without education, Hispanics are relegated to the poverty cycle. Therefore, the role of the family, the role of the political machine, and the role of the media, in my opinion, are crucial.

I can tell you that I don’t think that enough is being done in those sectors to really provide support for Hispanic students. Miami-Dade is the largest Hispanic serving institution and we educate more Hispanics than any other college or university in the United States. I think what is interesting to note here, is that when you look at our student body, close to 60 percent of them come to us as first-generation college students and more than two-thirds of them come unprepared. And, a very large percentage of them are poor, by federal standards. As a matter of fact, the statistic today is that 59 percent of them are low-income, and 31 percent are below the poverty line. So, we are serving a very poor population.

To take those students in and take them to the point where they graduate is a tremendous task, and one that we are very proud of, because we have one of the best records of retention and graduation of any college or university in the United States. Every piece of research done within the state university system in Florida has shown that Miami-Dade graduates compete very favorably with the native university students. students who went directly from high school to the university and who already had met the requirements of high grade point average (GPA) and high SAT scores. The statistics show that the performance of our students as far as GPA, retention rate, and graduation rate is higher than that of the native university students. That’s a tremendous accomplishment. Most people feel that if you are serving a population that is mostly poor, unprepared, and first-generation college students, there is no way to achieve excellence. But we have demonstrated at Miami-Dade, and I think this should provide the grounds for others to have no more excuses, the fact that you can still work with those populations, and achieve excellence. This is a source of great pride for all of us.

HT: That’s amazing.

Padrón: It’s very amazing. But the sad thing is, while community colleges in Florida are a tremendous vehicle of access for minorities and the poor, they are also the sacrificial lambs of the system. Just to give you an idea, the universities get twice as much funding-twice-per FTE (full-time equivalent student) for the first two years of college. Our students come with the disadvantage of being poor and unprepared while the universities’ students are the best prepared, and yet we get half the funding. And we are expected to do the same job, because the requirements and tests the students have to take are all the same. The real battle in Florida right now is how legislative policy is affecting minorities, especially Hispanics, because many of the Legislature’s actions in terms of funding are totally discriminating against the minorities and the poor. We have a long way to go in educating well-meaning legislators who are failing to see the realities of our institutions.

So, it is a real issue, and maintaining the level of quality and performance is becoming almost an impossible task. Just to give you an example, the Legislature met in a special session recently to cut the budget because we have a shortfall in state revenues, as a result of the September 11th tragedy. To give you an idea-they cut Miami-Dade Community College by 7.2 percent. However, they cut the state universities by 6.3 percent, and the K-12 system by 5.7. Totally unfair. There is no equity across the board. What you find is a significant neglect of the needs of the most deserving and the most needy populations, which are community college students, not the university students. Eighty-five percent of our student body is minorities

Meanwhile, I am equally proud because M-DCC has been able to reach the same degree of success with African Americans. As you know, we have the second largest enrollment of African Americans of any college or university in the country, and we graduate more African Americans than any other college or university. So, we have achieved the same level of success with African Americans, and again, it makes a statement. It hurts me when you find people justifying the problems in K-12 by saying well, you know they have difficulties because all they have is Black and Hispanic students, and they are poor-those are very poor excuses. There is a direct correlation in terms of effort and resources and the ability to succeed. The problem that we are having is that not enough resources are being allocated to the needs of the poor and the minorities.

HT: So, basically, with your tremendous record of success, you’ve been doing much more with less.

Padrón: Oh absolutely. And frankly, I think that’s part of the problem. Senator Mario Diaz-Balart, a state senator from Miami, publicly says that, “we are the most under-funded overachievers.” That’s because we are used to doing more with less, and we are taken for granted. We have reached a point now-most possibly in this coming year- of having to close the doors. We are an open-door institution, we accept everyone who has a high school diploma, but I think it has gotten to the point that because of our financial situation we may have to limit admissions, and it will be the saddest day of my professional life if we have to do that. But I have to make sure that we maintain the quality of education that the students deserve. Right now we have over 10,000 students for which we have not received one penny of funding. You tell me what institution in this nation is able to function under those conditions while continuing to maintain a reasonable level of quality. It is just not right nor possible.

HT: When you say closing the doors, do you mean closing the doors completely, or do you mean denying access because you have to charge more tuition?

Padrón: Charging more tuition is not an option for us because we are not serving middle class students with means–we are serving the poor. If we increase tuition by five dollars per credit, and expect students to pay $100 more per semester, for many of the students we enroll, some of whom are even homeless, that makes the difference between putting food on the table or going to school. Many of them cannot come full-time, they come part-time, because they have full-time jobs in order to sustain their families. The average age here is 28, which means that these are people with family responsibilities who are trying to get out of the poverty cycle. It is a real dilemma and a real challenge.

Many of the top political, business, and civic leaders in South Florida would tell you that M-DCC was the main source of their success. Everywhere you turn: successful alumni. From the halls of Congress to the most important corporations in South Florida, you find M-DCC alumni leading the way. The mayor of our city is a graduate of Miami-Dade Community College, as well as the state attorney and the medical examiner. Our alumni are artists like Emilio Estefan and Sylvester Stallone; I could go on and on and on-fire chiefs, chiefs of police, bank presidents-Miami-Dade’s graduates are in all occupations and professions. Consider for a moment the fact that high profile citizens like U.S. Representatives John Mica and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen are former M-DCC students, U.S. Ambassadors Paul Cejas and Simon Ferro are also “ours”, and major league baseball players like the Mets’ Mike Piazza, Cardinals’ Placido Polanco, and the Pirates’ Omar Olivares, to name a few, all got their start at M-DCC. Many of these people came here as immigrants, and our record shows you that this school has been here for them and has been the source of a great beginning for a lot of people. I myself would not be talking to you today if it had not been for Miami-Dade Community College. So, it is a school with a tremendous and powerful history behind it, but it is a school that is at the verge of not being able to do that any longer. It’s a very serious situation. At stake is access and quality education.

While I can understand that if the state has lower revenues, they have to cut-right? It’s only fair, and we need to understand that. What we cannot understand is why every time they cut, they make the most cuts within the institution that is by far the most impacting in terms of being a beacon of opportunity and upliftment for hundreds of thousands of people, the system that is the most efficient–by their own admission–the most economical, and specially the one that is serving the people that need it the most.

Charles Garcia, the only Hispanic member of the seven-member education superboard, did something very courageous. Charlie presented a motion to recommend that the community colleges be held harmless from budget cuts. This is a man who understands the reality that this is the college for the poor, for immigrants, and for Hispanics and other minorities, and that cuts at the community college level hurt the entire community and our state’s future. If we don’t educate them well, or provide real opportunities for re-training and upgrading of skills, we are creating an even worse problem with greater liability for all of us. Plus, Charlie understands that this is the system that has been hurt the most traditionally, given the many years that the system has remained underfunded. As such, he was so forthright in his presentation of the realities that he was able to get the seven members to unanimously agree to make that provision. The case was so strong, that each board member supported the motion, and yet the legislature turned their backs on that recommendation and did the same old thing again.

HT: What is the key to being able to generate such success despite the lack of resources and the difficulties like language barriers?

Padrón: Well, it all depends on how you allocate your limited resources. I have streamlined the system, implemented cost containment programs, and consolidated operations. I have cut the cost of personnel from being 86 percent of our total budget to 74 percent. With our motto, “ Students First” at the forefront of all decisions, I have 400 employees less today than I had in 1995, in order to put as much of the resources into the classroom and into support for the students; and to bring them cutting-edge, state of the art technology, because you know if they train on antiquated equipment, when they get out into the job market they cannot compete for jobs. And all that has not been easy, but we have done it in spite of the fact that M-DCC’s funding per FTE is at the bottom 10% of the nation. More often than not, when students go to university, as freshmen or even as sophomores, they are in the classroom with 300 to 400 other students, and graduate/teaching assistants are the ones who are teaching them. That is why many students opt to go to community colleges even when they meet the university admission criteria. It’s very difficult for those students to get real support services, or any semblance of individualized attention in the classroom. They need people who can help them understand financial assistance, to advise them about careers and courses, and who can provide support for personal or family problems so that they can stay in school. Because of the nature of the population that we serve, we need ten times more resources to go into those areas in order to help the students be successful.

The point that I am trying is make is that we’ve cut the fat off of our operations in order to be able to adequately maintain quality academic and student support services–that’s the key to our success! Our success is also making the community comfortable and feeling that they have ownership in the College. You will not find a community where the sense of ownership in their college is greater than here. They really feel they belong here. They don’t feel intimidated. The ethnic make-up of our students, faculty and staff mirror that of the community at-large and that goes far in making all in the community feel welcome at the college. One of the reasons why sometimes Hispanics, for example, don’t go to college, is because they feel that they will be one of the different ones. But here, there is a tremendous sense of belonging and participation and all that takes a lot of effort and great initiative in terms of making do with limited resources. But you get to the point where something has to give, because you can only stretch the limited resources but so far. That is a great tragedy.

Miami-Dade has been recognized as one of the finest and most innovative community colleges. We have received the first of many awards, like the Hesburgh Award given by the American Council on Education, where we were the first recipient of that award for teaching innovations and quality of teaching.

HT: So, what is the next step with the Legislature?

Padrón: First of all, I don’t rest one second without trying to make a case and trying to push for what’s right. And secondly, many members of the Legislature do not really understand the problem, and I would not say they are not sympathetic to minority issues, but they have not had to confront those issues in their own areas. Florida is a very large state, the fourth largest state in the nation. It is a very diverse state, with most of the minorities being concentrated here in South Florida, especially Hispanics. And sometimes I feel like their attitude is that it’s not their problem. And they traditionally are more interested in college football, and those kinds of things unfortunately take precedence.

I think the key to the solution is with the community–with the Hispanic community and leadership in particular–whether it’s in business or the media or any other industry for that matter. I think the community, if they value what this institution has done for them–many of the them are M-DCC graduates–if they value what we do for the future of their businesses, there must be a sense of outrage. There must be a sense of militancy on their part. They must insist that the community college be saved. It is my opinion that there is no other way.

We live in America, and we live in a democratic society, which responds to pressure; and if those pressures are not there, if it’s not done in a very vocal and a very demanding way, it’s not going to happen. I’m hopefully optimistic that the tables will turn favorably, given that when the local and state leadership become aware of the consequences of the downfall of this institution, they are going to react very quickly.

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