Analysts say African Americans and Hispanics are under-represented in higher education in the United States, and they worry about another trend in minority education. College graduation rates are lower for minority males than females. Researchers and educators met recently in Los Angeles to address the problem.
The disparity, says psychologist Aida Hurtado of the University of California, Santa Cruz, is illustrated by a Latino family in her city. The daughter was one of her students, who completed a bachelor's degree and later earned a master's degree in counseling. While the young woman was progressing in her career, her brother was killed in a shooting described as gang-related.
Too often, says Ms. Hurtado, there is a similar pattern: young women overcome poverty to excel at school, while their brothers drop out, find poorly paying jobs and sometimes get into trouble with the law.
Often raised in the inner city, minority boys and girls face similar obstacles, but Professor Hurtado says cultural factors also come into play. Latino mothers tend to be strict with their teenage daughters. Too often, she says, the young men are given free rein.
"Young women, the sisters of these young men, end up having very strong curfews, end up having a lot of responsibilities at home, a lot of tasks assigned to them. And if they don't do them, they're accountable," she explained.
She says that training can lead to success in school.
Harry Pachon is president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, which hosted a recent conference on Latino males in higher education. He says at least 20 percent more Hispanic women than men go to college, a pattern also seen among African Americans.
He says factors other than culture can explain the disparity. He says most teachers in elementary school are women who can serve as role models for minority girls. He says minority students may not understand the process of getting into college, or of finding loans or grants to pay their tuition. He says that for young minority men in particular, there is also the lure of jobs, with a salary and early passage into the world of adulthood. The jobs, however, tend to be in low-paying fields such as auto repair.
"Latino males have more employment opportunities with a high school degree or after they're 17 years old -- in [auto] body shops or manual labor -- that are not open to females, so that females see the value of a college education," he noted. "But it's really a shame because the difference between a college graduate and a non-college graduate is a million dollars over a lifetime. So it is a million dollar decision for the individual."
Aaron Thomas is educational director of the National Urban League, an African American civil rights organization. He says young black men often emulate entertainers or sports stars, while their sisters stay in school and get an education. He says few boys understand how hard it is to follow in the footsteps of their idols.
"A Jay-Z, or some professional athlete in football or basketball, is not the norm," he explained. "I think those opportunities are slim, and they [successful stars] usually are somebody with an extraordinary level of talent. But when you start talking about our doctors and our lawyers and those who can really contribute to the larger society, we have to have folks who are obtaining college degrees and going on to even graduate work and research."
College enrollment is not low for all minority groups. Asian Americans have higher graduation rates than other populations. The scholars and community workers who met in Los Angeles say the lower rates for African American and Hispanic youngsters result from many factors, from a lack of role models to high crime rates in the inner city.
Aaron Thomas says this is a national problem, and he uses the analogy of a sports team.
"We have a team and we have players on the bench that we refuse to use, and I think that is foolish, I think it is shortsighted, and I think that it doesn't make America the best that it can be," he added. "We have to give all the talent an opportunity to score, an opportunity to move the ball down the field, and an opportunity to play in the game."
He says the educational gap between minority men and women, and between minorities and others, can only be closed through joint efforts by educators, policy makers and community leaders.