High school junior Jennifer Gonzalez’s eyes light up as she talks about college. The 17-year-old Latina, who’s currently thinking about Notre Dame or Northwestern University, will be the first woman in her family to attend a four year university. It's a milestone she does not take for granted.
“My parents have worked so hard and sacrificed so much,” said Gonzalez. “I want to surpass what they have done and set an example for the next generation that no dreams are out of reach.”
While Gonzalez is hopeful for the future, thousands of other teenagers are struggling to find a place in life and have postponed their college dreams because of finances or lack of access to educational resources, according to the Center for the Future of Higher Education, an advocacy group that seeks to promote higher education.
The center reports that enrollment in colleges across the nation declined slightly last year, despite President Obama’s goal of increasing college graduates by 50 percent in the next eight years.
“If college enrollment continues to decrease we could lose our position as global leaders in the world,” said Jose Muñoz, director of public affairs for Chicago-based New Futuro, a Hispanic-education oriented company which has grown rapidly since it was founded in 2010.
According to a report of preliminary data released in October by the U.S. Department of Education, college enrollment dipped by 0.2 percent in the fall of 2011. But among Hispanics, college enrollment hit a new high in 2011. According to a Pew Hispanic Center report released in August, the number of 18- to 24-year-old Hispanics reached a record 16.5 percent share of all college enrollments.
Enrollment is not just a Latino or minority issue, said Muñoz. “This is an American issue because to grow our economy we need more skilled workers and higher education is the best way to ensure that people have the proper skills,” said Muñoz.
To help advance this goal, New Futuro partnered with organizations and universities to sponsor what has become the largest college prep fair for Latinos. They have taken the free fair to New York, Houston, Miami and Los Angeles. Chicago was the the fair’s last stop, on Saturday, and it drew more than 10,000 confirmed attendees.
The company, which says it is “creating a pathway to success” for Hispanics through the initiative, says it has helped thousands of families around the nation by answering questions, giving scholarship information, and helping educate people on the process of attending and affording college. New Futuro won the 2012 Chicago Innovation award in October; it was the only Latino-focused company to win the award.
Even though the statistics look daunting, Gonzalez is still hopeful for her peers. She said that organizations like New Futuro give hope to young people finding their way by giving information that has been difficult for certain groups to find.
Gonzalez’s mom, Carmen Gonzalez, has been a parent advocate for education for 11 years. Currently, she works for Northeastern Illinois University’s Gear Up program, providing the parents of high school students with information on how to apply to universities, where to find scholarships, and other steps to ensure that their child will attend college. The program works with 147 schools throughout Chicago.
“I think it’s very important that we realize that we have to educate ourselves, so our children have a better life and better opportunities,” said Carmen Gonzalez. She attended the college prep fair no only for her daughter, but also to gather information for those Hispanic families who were unable to attend.
The Center for Higher Education agrees and reports that higher education in the 21st Century must be more inclusive by becoming more available and affordable to those who have been historically shut out of college based upon financialburdens or other impediments.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who spoke at the New Futuro event Saturday, underscored the importance of early education. This year, he noted, Chicago added an hour and 15 minutes to the elementary school day and extended the school year by 10 days.
The move, he told fair attendees, is designed "to make sure that every child, regardless of their background, regardless of their zip code, regardless of where they came from, has the potential to achieve what their parents dreamed of back home.”