Potential Mechanisms

Scholars have explored a variety of potential barriers that limit students’ college choices, particularly for low-income students, first-generation college enrollees, and students of color. This scholarship includes investigations of whether students took “college-aligned actions” necessary for a successful transition into college, particularly a four-year college (Ryan & Ream, 2016). These steps often include taking a college entrance exam (Berkner & Chavez, 1997), taking the appropriate coursework in high school (Roderick, Nagaoka, Coca, & Moeller, 2009) applying to an appropriate college (Belasco & Trivette, 2015; Berkner & Chavez, 1997; Black et al., 2015; Dillon & Smith, 2017), applying for financial aid (Roderick et al., 2008), and speaking with a college counselor (Belasco & Trivette, 2015; Roderick, Coca, & Nagaoka, 2011). Within the last decade, there has also been a growing interest on the topic of “summer melt” (see Castleman & Page, 2014 for a summary of the research on this issue). This line of study suggests that there are multiple opportunities for critical missteps during the summer that could jeopardize students’ plans enroll in college in the fall.

This line of work is buttressed by studies that have shown that many students— particularly first-generation college enrollees, low-income students, and students of color—lack the in-depth knowledge about the college application process, key characteristics of colleges, as well as general knowledge on how to finance their college education (Hoxby & Turner, 2015; Tornatzky, Cutler, & Lee, 2002; Roderick et al., 2008, 2009). In particular, Latinx parents and students often lack information about financial aid and the financial aid process (Berkner & Chavez,

1997; Flint, 1992; Luna De La Rosa, 2006; Zarate & Fabienke, 2007; Zarate & Pachón, 2006). Thus, access to information itself is seen as a mechanism that shapes the decisions that students make in terms of their college destinations.

Other Factors

Scholars have provided a vast range of other potential explanations for Latinx students’ college destinations. Family income and parental education are commonly cited when explaining gaps in college destinations. Latinx young people disproportionately come from low-income households (Fontenot, Semega, & Kollar, 2018) and have parents with low educational attainment levels (NCES, 2017). Others point to contextual factors. For example, the Latinx population often lives in racially and economically segregated neighborhoods (Chapa & Valencia, 1993; NCES, 2016a), and, in turn, their children often attend racially and economically segregated schools (Orfield, 2001). Moreover, the schools that Latinx students disproportionately attend are not of high quality (Darling-Hammond, 1998; Noguera, 2003) and do not offer college preparatory courses (Oakes & Guitón, 1995; Rodríguez, 2015; Schneider, Martinez, & Owens, 2006). The results of these accumulated differences often mean that Latinx students are often inadequately equipped to navigate the college planning process and are unprepared to meet the academic entrance requirements set by a sizable segment of institutions of higher education.

Immigrant status of students and their parents also plays a particularly critical role on educational trajectories of the Latinx population given that about a third of Latinx U.S. residents are foreign born (NCES, 2016b). In addition to common socioeconomic disadvantages that many immigrant families face, scholars find that students from immigrant families face additional barriers to educational attainment. Prime examples include limited English proficiency and unfamiliarity with the U.S. education system, as well as everyday stresses of being an immigrant, particularly for undocumented immigrants (Erisman & Looney, 2007; Gonzales, 2016). Moreover, students who are undocumented, or who have parents who are undocumented, face additional barriers financing their education because they are often excluded from accessing federal and state financial aid and/or in-state tuition prices (Baum & Flores, 2011; Conger & Chellman, 2013; Flores, 2010; Olivas, 2009; Teranishi, Suárez-Orozco, & Suárez-Orozco, 2015).

In addition to the factors described previously, scholars point to sociocultural factors to explain differences in students’ college destinations. These factors include the issue of fatnilismo (Desmond & López Turley, 2009; Martinez, 2013; Sy & Romero, 2008). This line of research suggests that Latinx young people prioritize family interests over individual ambitions. While familisino is beneficial in a variety of ways, it may constrain the students’ college choices, particularly for those with a wide range of options (Desmond & López Turley, 2009). In fact, studies have found that foreign-born, Latinx youth are less likely to pursue a postsecondary degree than their native-born counterparts and cite financial commitments to their family as the main reason for not attending college (Lopez, 2009). Furthermore, studies have shown that Latinx students show a stronger preference for living near home in comparison to their counterparts (Tornatzky, Lee, Mejia, & Tarant, 2003).

Other sociocultural explanations included Latinx families’ limited social networks (Person & Rosenbaum, 2006) and lack of trust of those outside their network (Pérez & McDonough, 2008). For example, friends and family play a distinctively important role in the college planning process of Latinx students (Ceja, 2006; Kim, 2004; Person & Rosenbaum, 2006; Pérez & McDonough, 2008). In their qualitative study of 106 high school Latinx juniors and seniors from the Los Angeles area, Pérez and McDonough (2008) found that the college choice process for Latinx students is influenced heavily by trusted older peers, friends, and acquaintances that have had a successful transition into college. Thus, the authors conclude that traditional models for shaping college choice, which often take an individualistic approach, are not conducive to how Latinx students use information to evaluate their decisions.

Studies have also shown that students of color are also susceptible to stereotyping and anti-immigrant hostility by institutional personnel in ways that negatively affect their educational trajectories. For example, there is evidence that teachers often underestimate the ability of students of color, particularly in schools with high shares of students of color (Ready & Wright, 2011).

Several studies have explored the college choices of Latinx students (Ceja, 2006). However, few have explicitly examined Latinx students’ college choices through the lens of the undermatch phenomenon—when students attend colleges with lower selectivity levels to which they have access given their academic qualifications. Furthermore, few studies have attempted to differentiate the story of undermatch among Latinx students by a variety of other characteristics that distinguish the challenges that the growing Latinx student population faces.

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