The University of California Irvine, located on a sprawling green campus between Los Angeles and San Diego, has made strides in recruiting and graduating Latino students like senior Marlen Gomez.
The 23-year-old says her hometown, Santa Ana, where more than90 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latino, was a tough place to grow up.
“The kids get a labor job. The girls get pregnant at an early age,” she said. “We just get stuck.”
Like 80 percent of the Latino students at UC Irvine, Gomez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, is the first in her family to go to college.
“The statistics are sad because I have four older siblings, and I’m the youngest one, and they had to work unfortunately to help out my mom — my parents,” Gomez said.
Despite a statewide ban on the consideration of race in admissions, over the past 10 years, UC Irvine has nearly tripled the percentage of Latinos on campus — from 12 percent to 34 percent — and increased their six-year graduation rate from 75 percent to 95 percent. Among public colleges in Massachusetts, Salem State University has the highest percentage of Latino students at 18 percent. That’s up from 14 percent in 2014.
UC Irvine has directly targeted heavily Latino communities like Santa Ana, aggressively recruiting talented students like Gomez.
“It’s part of a long-term commitment, and it begins with individuals,” said Douglas Haynes, vice provost for academic equity, diversity and inclusion. Haynes spearheaded the school’s campaign to create a more diverse campus after California voters banned the consideration of race in admissions in 1996 through a ballot initiative called Proposition 209.
“I think on the one hand, it forced institutions to recast its strategies, but at the same time, Prop. 209 sent a very blunt, disrespectful message to underrepresented racial populations in the state of California,” he said.
So UC Irvine responded to that message by encouraging underrepresented, first-generation students to apply, while also raising awareness about how to pay for their education through grants and loans. Once these students arrive on campus, the university has given them extra support, guiding them toward meaningful courses and degrees and offering them mentors and workshops that help them deal with stress.
The result of all this work is UC Irvine’s federal designation as a Hispanic-serving institution. Still, Haynes admits, UC Irvine has a long way to go: Latinos make up nearly half of the college-age population in California, while the school’s enrollment is 34 percent Latino. Even with their high graduation rate in six years, they are less likely to graduate in four years than their white, black and Asian counterparts.
“We’re not done yet,” Haynes said. “We want all of our students to graduate within four years.”
Most public colleges in the United States do not represent the populations — racially or ethnically — they’re intended to serve.
More selective public colleges than UC Irvine, like UCLA and Berkeley, marginalize Latino students, according to a report from Georgetown’s Education and the Workforce. The report looked at how Latinos were represented at selective public colleges between 2005 and 2015.
“Latinos have made some progress, but they are at only half of their overall representation in the college-age population,” said Martin Van Der Werf, who co-authored the report.
The problem, Van Der Werf says, is that selective public colleges emphasize standardized test scores too much.
“Even low-performing whites might score higher than the highest-performing black or Latino students,” he said. “If you go only by test score, the test score is always going to favor white students.”
Van Der Werf says misguided admissions practices and inequality in state funding are splitting public higher education into two separate and unequal tracks.
“We have a system in which just about everything favors white students, and then the public higher education system becomes the capstone of that inequality,” Van Der Werf said. “White students who already have all of the advantages go to the best-financed colleges and then have the highest graduation rates.”
At UC Irvine, Marlen Gomez is on track to graduate this spring with a degree in psychology and social behavior.
“I want to start a legacy for my nieces and nephews and be a better role model for them,” she said.
Gomez admits it may sound cliché, but her dream job is to become an academic counselor and help other students from her hometown of Santa Ana earn a college degree.
WGBH News’ Esteban Bustillos contributed to this report.