Navigating the Maze of Higher Education

When Jasmine Meraz was growing up, she would help her mother, who was undocumented, pick blueberries at a nearby farm.

“Blueberries are pretty bomb berries,” Jasmine says while splayed out on the backseat of a car heading to Monmouth, Oregon, where her mother still lives. She looks out the window at the fields. “I learn to actually like them a lot more. You cherish them because you’re just like, ‘oh boy I remember picking those, I remember packaging those.’”

It’s the beginning of Jasmine’s spring break. She’s a third-year student but she racked up so many credits that she’s a “standing senior” about to start her final semester at Oregon State University, more commonly known as OSU. She’s also a member of the College Assistance Migrant Program, or CAMP—a federal program that provides advising and financial support for the children of migrant workers.

When we arrive at Jasmine’s mother’s trailer, she greets us outside and jokes that the weather is so nice we should all go into the backyard in bikinis. In reality, Jasmine’s mom Maria is wearing a blue smock similar to scrubs. After more than a decade of working on nearby fields Maria is happy to be working inside at an industrial laundry mat. But according to Jasmine, Maria is, in a way, also a part-time student.

“While I’m learning, she’s learning too so that’s something that grows our bond a lot,” says Jasmine.

Jasmine and her mother speak every day at the same time and almost every weekend, they go on errands together at Walmart or Home Depot. While they browse the aisles, Jasmine will tell Maria about what she’s learning in class or give her mom a detailed outline of the essay she’s writing.

Maria is really proud of Jasmine not only for going to school but for finding a way to pay for it herself through scholarships since Maria could not afford to send Jasmine on her own. But even with the support of CAMP, her mother, and scholarships, Jasmine has thought about doing something many Latino students contemplate: leaving school.

Today, Latino students are entering college at unprecedented numbers. Over the last decade, Latino college enrollment has gone up by 82%. Yet, Latino students are also leaving school at higher rates. The number of Latinos between the ages of 18 and 34 who left college without completing their degree has gone up by 35 percent in the last decade while the general non-completion rate has only gone up by seven percent that time period.

At OSU, they have adopted what they’re calling the 2020 initiative as a way to combat non-completion and close the achievement gap. They hope to raise first-year retention rate by 2020 for all students from 83.8 percent to 90 percent, and its six-year graduation rate from 63.1 percent to 70 percent. They are tackling the issue in many ways but three issues they have noticed students struggle with are mental health, certain STEM classes and financial strains.

Jasmine is the kind of student you expect to see in an admissions video: she studied abroad in Uganda, interned on Capitol Hill and regularly volunteers with her sorority. But earlier this year she was struggling to balance her two on-campus jobs, all her extracurriculars, eating healthy food and finding time to exercise—not to mention studying.

“I started going through a lot of depressive and anxiety things just because it was just stress like the stress got to me,“ Jasmine says.

She became very concerned once she landed in the ER twice in two weeks. “I have gallstones and I have to get it removed and I’ll probably need to get my gallbladder removed,” she says. Jasmine believes stress is what led her to the hospital. “So I thought maybe dropping out was a better option or taking a term or two off.”

Ultimately, Jasmine decided to stick it out after speaking to an advisor from CAMP. At OSU, CAMP has around 30 students per year. But there are over 2,000 Latino students at OSU. For many, it can be difficult to find the support necessary.

This is something Susana Rivera-Mills, a Vice-Provost of OSU, acknowledges. “You know even when I went to college I remember that I never saw an adviser unless I sought one out,” she says. “And I don’t think I ever got a message from an advisor telling me to check on something here. We want to shift that completely around.”

According to Rivera-Mills, the university is able to see through data which students are struggling and the goal is be in a place in which advisors reach out to students and not the other way around since often students themselves don’t know when or where to seek help. But even then, she worries that might not be enough.

“Sometimes the challenge is that many of our first generation students—in this specific case Latino students—don’t let their advisers know that they’re having trouble even when the advisers reach out to them,” Rivera-Mills says.

This is definitely true of Miguel Paniagua, senior and kinesiology major. He grew up in Orange Grove, a small town in Oregon where he went to school with mostly other children of migrant workers. In high school he took automotive classes and woodshop thinking he might use those tools when he graduated.

“None of that seemed interesting but that was my idea of a career back in the day because that’s the type of work that my dad would do,” Paniagua says.

It wasn’t until Paniagua thought about what he could do that would incorporate his love of soccer and exercise that he found physical therapy and was amazed at how much a physical therapist could make, “I saw the number was like $80,000 a year. Me being raised in a low income family, saw that number and thought ‘I would be able to help out my family a lot with that.’”

But it turned out to not be the easiest path. Paniagua’s sophomore year, fearing he would fail, he dropped out of anatomy class. “It was kind of devastating for me. I was just like, ‘I don’t know if this career is for me,” says Paniagua.

That was the first time Paniagua thought about leaving college. Taking a tough STEM class —often colloquially called “weed out classes”— is for many students a stumbling block. At OSU they are trying to combat this by redesigning the curriculum for such classes, starting with algebra.

Over the past year, algebra classes have started implementing “active learning” which in the simplest terms means more group activities and less lecturing. And this has proved to be successful. The DFW rate —students getting a D, F, or withdraw— has decreased by 10 to 20 percentage points since the curriculum change.

Paniagua was able to take anatomy over and the second time received an A. But even as he went into his final year at OSU, he faced one last hurdle: money.

“I’ve had a lot of financial problems where I know I’m working but still despite that I’m still having trouble paying for my housing,” says Paniagua, holding back tears. “I didn’t get an eviction notice but I was pretty close to it.”

Paniagua didn’t know where to turn. He ended up asking his parents and his roommate’s’ parents for money and they have been able to cover the last months. But he felt very embarrassed and at no point did he feel like he could go to the administration about his financial struggles—not because he felt like they were unsympathetic but because he simply had no idea where he could go for that sort of help.

OSU says it offers emergency loans and completion loans for students who are close to graduating but need a little extra push. I asked Vice-Provost Rivera-Mills where Paniagua could go to find out about those kinds of loans.

“Funding is limited so it would actually be unfair to put out an all-out call, of ‘if you have trouble please come see us’, because the truth is that I bet you that out of our 30,000 students 90 percent of them would perceive themselves as needing additional funding. And there’s no way that we can cover that,” says Rivera-Mills.

Today, a college degree is more important than ever when it comes to economic mobility in the United States. In the 1970s, only a third of jobs required college education. Today, 65 percent of jobs require college education. But earning a degree is more expensive than ever. Since the 2008 recession, public university tuition has increased by 28 percent. At the same time, with pressure to slash budgets, states have disinvested in higher education. In Oregon, state funding per student in higher education fell by a third in the last decade. As tuition rises, students end up shouldering more and more burden to keep universities afloat. And many students are crumbling under that burden.

Jasmine and Miguel are both one semester away from graduating—they can see the exit to the maze. But for every Jasmine and Miguel, there is one Latino student who won’t find their way out.

The full data study by Community Service Society of New York to support this Latino USA story can be accessed below:


Produced by Antonia Cereijido

Edited by Annie Aviles and Marlon Bishop

This segment was reported using research conducted for Latino USA by the Community Service Society of New York. You can find more information about these trends at CSSNY's site.

Artwork by Zeke Peña

Fact checking by Zoe Malik

Latino USA is made possible in part by Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation.