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Why Latinx Diversity in Academia Matters

SPA Professor Suggests Strategies for Higher Ed to Improve Support for Latinx Students

AU School of Public Affairs Assistant Professor Janice Iwama knows the barriers that Latinx students face in pursuing higher education. A first-generation college student from a Latin American family, Iwama earned her undergraduate degree at AU in 2004 and her doctorate at Northeastern University in Boston in 2016.  

In her latest article "Advancing Latinx Diversity in Academia and Why It Matters,” published this March in the Journal of Criminal Justice Education, Iwama reflects upon her own experience and research to propose ways that colleges can do a better job of helping Latinx students graduate.

The Latinx population in the U.S. has grown by 23% in the past decade. In the fall of 2020, there were more than 3.7 million Latinx students enrolled in colleges and universities, and the number of Hispanic-serving institutions has tripled from 1994 to 2020. Still, about 20% of Latinx residents over the age of 25 have a bachelor’s degree.

Changes are needed, maintains Iwama, to help more Latinx residents complete college. 

“When you start realizing that there's a huge disparity in the number of Latinx students who are actually enrolling and students who are graduating, we have to start asking questions.” Iwama said. “I felt it was time to acknowledge the challenges and introduce some solutions.”

While there is no single path that all Latinx follow in educational institutions, Iwama writes that there are some common themes found that can either help or hinder their academic progress and success.

First, Iwama suggests Latinx students need to see more people who look like them teaching on campuses. With greater representation, students can find mentors and form social networks. 

Postsecondary institutions should also adopt programs and practices for first-generation students. She recommends resources be provided on college admission, course registration, and career advice, as well as guidance on managing their time and finances.

Cultural differences in caring and supporting family members can impact Latinx students in college. More than 7 in 10 Latinx cite needing to work to support family as a reason for not enrolling in a four-year degree program. Colleges should be aware of this dynamic and the struggles that students might face maintaining a job and studying, Iwama said.

Finally, Iwama recommends colleges encourage Latinx students to be engaged in the community through affinity groups, alumni networks, and innovative educational project-based learning programs. This can help integrate Latinx students into campus life, promote civic engagement, generate a sense of belonging and provide additional support.

These investments in targeted support for Latinx students can benefit society at large, Iwama maintains. “Encouraging students to complete college creates a more diverse workforce and community members who are able to give back,” she said. Still, she notes, colleges must understand the diversity within the Latinx population and recognize that not all Spanish-speaking students have the same needs. Iwama encourages administrators to tune into what supports individual students require to be successful.

Added Iwama: “I’m trying to shed light to the complex nature of the Latino population and get people to think a little bit deeper in trying to address some of the problems.”