Education: Are Latinas Too Dumb for College?

Of course this sensationalist headline is wrong--Latinas are not too dumb for college. But if you look at the data, the numbers document an education gap that hurts our families, communities, and our country. Although Latinos with 16.5% of college enrollments are the largest minority to go to university, guess how many Latinos are actually graduating right now? Short answer? Not enough.


What about Latinas? We know they are receiving degrees at faster rates than their brothers, boyfriends, and male friends. But how do they stack up to non-Latinas? Not good. Only 33% of Hispanic women will complete a four-year college degree compared with 50% of non-Latinas.

Despite the fact Hispanic women are moving up the educational ladder, they still face an uphill battle pursuing and completing college. This is, in part, due to various cultural, social, and economic obstacles that can interfere with their ability to excel in school and stymie their dreams to pursue high education degrees. If school districts ignore these barriers, we may continue to see a widening post-secondary outcome gap between Latino and white students.

Why are Latinas not making the grade? The school as an institution factors tremendously: policies, administrators, teachers, and counselors sometimes overlook Latino cultural and racial diversity. Some may have views and expectations of Hispanic women, formed by negative gender and ethnic stereotypes of, for example, the sex pot or the maid, making them feel intellectually inferior.

Perception can become reality, with some students emulating these negative perceptions, perpetuating exclusion, a self-fulfilling prophecy of generational underachievement and broken dreams.


Another challenge for many Latinas is overcoming the legacy of poverty. Poverty rates among Hispanics are higher than any other demographic group. When a child is unable to see higher education as a reality for her own family, it's more difficult to achieve her dreams. I know this first hand: growing up poor,  I didn’t always believe that I could be successful in college. Luckily, I was exposed to higher education, with my teachers and family believing and nurturing my goal of graduating from university. Their involvement directly contributed to achieving my dream.

As if the deck wasn’t already stacked against Latinas, the sequester adds an entirely new set of problems. Cuts to programs and financial aid have devastating consequences for Latinas' already fragile educational achievement and upward mobility. Many of the schools Hispanic women attend already receive limited resources, resulting in increasing high school and college drop out rates, low enrollment in higher education, and ultimately increased poverty. With even fewer resources, how are Latinas expected to go college and get a strong foothold in the first rung of the ladder of opportunity?

Knowing what struggles stand at the forefront of this phenomenon provides us with an awareness of the problem. The next move is to transition from a state of awareness to one of action. Schools and policy makers can implement the following recommendations to increase the likelihood Latinas will pursue higher education:

  • Challenge racial and ethnic discrimination and develop inclusive learning spaces: Staff development and training in cross-cultural instructional programs are critical to address cultural and ethnic biases. Teachers can begin to "unlearn" stereotypes about Latinas and look beyond their initial beliefs and make greater connections with these students.
  • Develop quality education opportunities for Latinas: Sequester cuts to English as a Second Language, Head Start programs, and financial aid, diminish the technical competency needed to succeed. Schools can still help by providing quality attention and advisement, high expectations, and information about higher education.
  • Engage Parents: School staff must relentlessly communicate their expectations for students to all parents and understand the obstacles that prevent parents from actively engaging in their child’s education experience. Whether it is time, language barriers, family commitments, or work schedules, schools must build bridges between home and school to nourish students' goals and send a message that family is valued by teachers and staff.
  • Connect Latinas to Role Models: When Latinas are bombarded with images of underachievement, dropouts, and hypersexual objects for the male fantasy, it marginalizes them, limiting their access, opportunity, and general well-being in school settings. We must reject these stereotypes while developing a healthy self-identity through role models to help Hispanic women navigate the education pipeline while giving them the tools to achieve.

Latinas are not too dumb for college. Instead, they face significant obstacles to post-secondary school options. Identifying these barriers and challenging the low expectations and financial limitations of Latina students is key to them reaching their potential through education, leading to greater social mobility and economic security for themselves and their families.

In our community, a college degree is more than a piece of paper.  It is a passport to achieve our dreams.

Latina List of Higher Education Resources

  • Need Money for College?  The Hispanic Scholarship Fund is the largest non-profit organization in the U.S. dedicated to supporting higher education in the Latino community through scholarships and mentoring programs, as well as increasing college retention rates among Latino students.
  • New Futuro is a one-stop shop that guides Hispanic students and their families through the daunting maze of applying and paying for college through articles and videos to help motivate students and their families throughout the college enrollment process. The best part? It’s bilingual.
  • Excelencia in Education works with colleges and universities to help with the goal of accelerating Latino success in higher education through research that promotes policies and practices to support educational achievement for Latino students.  Check out the website to see if they serve your college or university.

Michaela_Pommells-TheWiseLatinaClubMichaela Pommells is an educator, social justice strategist, and co-founder of The Coalition for Racial Justice, a collaborative of neighbors, leaders, and institutions organized to eliminate race-based disparities in Philadelphia. Her greatest inspiration is her husband and three children.

Edited by: Viviana Hurtado, Ph.D.

Why do you think so many Latinas are enrolling in college but not finishing? Is it cultural or social reasons?