Improving the Academic Success of Latino Students


While many colleges are making investments in recruiting Latino students, Western Oregon University, a public institution primarily serving first-generation students, has made significant investments in supporting and retaining Latino students. Oregon Live reported that WOU raised its completion rate for Latino students 16% between 2002 and 2007 (the 2007 rate was 49%, actually several points higher than white students at WOU).

We asked David McDonald, associate provost at WOU, for advice he would offer his peers on where to start in improving graduation rates for Latino students.

Start with Your Data

“Start collecting the data now. What are the characteristics of successful versus not successful students?”
David McDonald, Western Oregon U

Among your Latino students, look for which cohorts are achieving success and which are not. This tells you both where you can reinvest funding for current efforts in order to capitalize on current successes, and where your greatest needs are. Factor in:

  • First-year retention rate
  • GPA
  • Ratio of credit earned and credit attempted
  • Retention to sophomore, junior, and senior years
  • Graduation rates — within four years, five years, and six years
  • Demographics — not just by ethnicity, but by gender, age, major, income, and percentage of students who are first-generation

Conduct an Advising Audit

“Start with advising. Is your college really doing what it needs to do?”
David McDonald, Western Oregon U

Because many Latino students are first-generation and lack the support network that may be available to traditional students, advising is especially critical. In auditing academic advising, look especially for groups of students (such as undeclared majors) who might be falling through the cracks. McDonald advises requiring undeclared majors to meet with advisers twice in the early term to assess their progress and any needs for additional support.

Resources of course are short, and many institutions have recently made sharp cuts to advising. McDonald advises looking proactively for opportunities to make the best use of the resources you already have. For example, if you have full-time advisers who need to manage this increased advising caseload, McDonald suggests identifying “peak” times and less busy times on advisers’ schedules. Given work schedules, are there relative blank spots on the advising calendar? How are you using your advising staff during those off-peak times? Can you use those weeks (maybe the third week of the term, or the sixth or seventh week) to build in additional advising sessions to address the needs of high-risk students?

“Avoid self-advising for first-generation Latino students,” McDonald adds. Proactive advising during the term is where you can see the most immediate gains in their academic success.

Invest in Bilingual Staff

Many institutions are experiencing high staff turnover in their student services. McDonald advises that the opportunity presented by this is that you can be more intentional in the skill sets you are adding as you replace staff. If improving graduation rates for Latino students is a priority for your institution, then one easy way to make gains is to invest in recruiting bilingual staff. This may take some additional recruiting effort, but it is ultimately a low-cost effort to provide additional support to first-generation Latino students.

Besides looking for bilingual advisers, McDonald suggests intentionally hiring staff in the writing center, admissions, and financial aid who are fluent in Spanish.

“Even though instruction is in English, transition into college is a family experience, and families are critical to the student support network. Consider making the investment to communicate in the language most comfortable to parents, not just the students.”
David McDonald, Western Oregon U

One initiative undertaken at Western Oregon University is to include bilingual staff when holding College 101 sessions during prematriculation orientation and new student orientation. WOU offers an optional track to the orientation for those students and families who would rather have some of the material in Spanish.

Rethink Your Connections with Feeder Schools

McDonald recommends taking a close look at how you are interacting with your feeder high schools or feeder community colleges and suggests several best practices for staff visits to feeder schools:

  • Shift the focus from advertising your institution to college readiness more generally — this will open the door for conversations with schools, counselors, students, and families that would not be available to you if you were only there to offer a “sales pitch”
  • Don’t ignore the school that has a lower college-going rate; send one staff member down to that school for one day to go from class to class until they have had a chance to speak with the entire junior class
  • Bring current students and young alumni to the feeder schools to discuss various aspects of the college transition — residence halls, how to find courses on campus, how to work with faculty, what study skills will be needed
  • Demystify the application and financial aid process by aiding students in completing FAFSA and application forms right there, during the visit

Walking through the forms with the students during the visit helps them apply your advice about the forms and may also increase your application pool by removing barriers to completing the applications. And by not focusing only on application but also on preparation for the college experience, you help to remove barriers to a successful first term and persistence.

Communicate the Priority of These Efforts

Finally, if it is a priority for your institution to serve Latino students all the way through graduation, communicate that to faculty and staff — especially when hiring and training new staff. Staff orientations need to include a briefing on the importance of retention and student success. Look for opportunities throughout the year for high-ranking officials at your institution to give reminders of the priority of this effort:

  • The president can highlight the institution’s retention initiatives for Latino students in the state of the university and welcome-back speeches
  • The president or provost can invite conversation about improving Latino student retention at faculty senate meetings
  • Ensure that retention of Latino and first-generation students is a key performance measure for division heads in enrollment management, academic affairs, and student affairs

Also, make sure there is a point person whom faculty and staff can refer students to or whom they can turn to with questions about what services may be available to assist a student. You can realize gains in student success and retention by ensuring that your student housing professionals and the faculty in your first-year courses have the extension and name of the key person who can answer the question, “How do I help this student?”