Guest post by Alex Trillo (@ATFiles)
Data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System1 tells us that Latinas are more likely to graduate from high school and are more likely to attend and graduate from college than Latinos. This problem has me thinking about our need to better understand the gender gap and some insights from an earlier project on Latino college experiences.
Ten years ago, I followed a group of two-year and four-year college students from the City University of New York system. My goal was to learn about their day-to-day challenges and why some made it to graduation, while others did not.
Among other things, I learned that many Latino students are regularly torn between tuition and schoolwork, material needs for themselves and their families, and the desire to become an independent adult, which is very much defined by having a full-time job.
In that context, Latino students often run into vulnerable moments where they are compelled to cut back on school and pursue work opportunities to help solve financial, familial and social dilemmas. These jobs are not quite as good as the ones college graduates get, but better than they would be if they had no college experience, and usually more appealing than the kinds of work their parents do.
One line of questioning that I never got to elaborate on was this: Why were there so many women in the classes I observed, and so few men? And were the challenges I observed equally distributed among men and women? Or were they unique for each?
For men, low college attendance and graduation rates do seem to be grounded in a unique set of social and educational experiences that happen earlier in life.2,3 Boys are generally socialized (and allowed) to be more outgoing and active. This leaves them vulnerable to external social pressures and invites targeting by police and K-12 school officials.
In the context of racist perceptions about Latinos and a school system that is often more preoccupied with maintaining order than learning, the result is for many to become demoralized, thrown out of school and even channeled into the detention or prison system. This is a particularly significant issue for Latinos that are phenotypically more African, Indigenous and/or have other characteristics that can be easily racialized, such as an accent or a name that is difficult to pronounce.
For Latinos that do make it to college, public targeting, vulnerable moments (and responses to them) continue to be unique. In college, Latino males are often labeled as hostile and dealt with in authoritarian or police-like manners throughout a variety of campus settings. And when school becomes difficult – financial aid glitches, missed classes for work, familial obligations, or demoralization because of hostile treatment – employment becomes a more seductive alternative that helps salvage their sense of being a man.
For women, the current increase in college attendance and graduation rates is inspiring and should be celebrated; but we should not let this detract from the persistent challenges they still face. Yes, Latinas are more likely to graduate than Latinos and even white men. But they still lag behind white women. This is especially pronounced in lesser ranked schools, which are a more realistic and popular option for Latinos and Latinas. Indeed, my study included the community college experience because it is such a common option for them.
In contrast to men, young Latinas often have a more inward experience that includes contributing to everyday household activities and negotiating greater parental control.2 At the college level, they are often employed out of necessity, still responsible for helping out at home, and parents are sometimes uncertain about school demands like night classes or late study sessions at the library.
One student would have to call on a male cousin from the Bronx to meet her in midtown and escort her home to Queens, after a late night of studying. If the cousin was not available, the parents were almost sure to challenge her. And in the parents’ defense, there are very real concerns of violence for women traveling home at night. Latina students that live on their own have the same considerations.
Alas, this is not new material and it is surely not the whole story. As we move forward with the challenge of improving graduation rates for Latino students (or even for all students) more Latino researchers, activists and parents might think carefully about the contrasting experiences and needs of young men and women.
We have to address the problematic institutions that are quick to dismiss or even lock up young men before they get a chance. We have to think about the dynamics of hyper-masculinity and how it shapes the strategies men rely on for dealing with difficult situations. And we have to think about the unique struggles of Latinas and how to make theirs a more comfortable, complete experience that puts them on par with other women graduates.
Kelly, Andrew P., Mark Schneider and Kevin Carey. 2010. Rising to the Challenge: Hispanic College Graduation Rates as a National Priority. American Enterprise Institute.
Lopez, Nancy. 2003 Hopeful Girls, Troubled Boys: Race and Gender Disparity in Urban Education, New York: Routledge
Smith, Robert C. 2009. Gender, Ethnicity, and Race in School and Work Outcomes of Second-Generation Mexican-Americans in Latinos Remaking America. Edited by Marcelo M Suarez-Orozco and Mariela M. Paez. University of California Press.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Trillo is an associate professor of sociology and Latino studies at Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City. His current research interests include immigration, identity and health. In his spare time he works with students on Relationships 101, a project that promotes constructive ways of thinking about the intersection of culture, femininity, masculinity and community well-being. You might also find him hanging around the New York City salsa scene, or in the aisles of Home Depot, planning yet another project.