Higher ed marketing cannot continue to ignore latino students

I was talking to a first-generation Mexican-American student at my previous institution when she said something that stuck with me, verbatim, until this day.

“Hispanic students are very family-oriented,” Mary (name changed) said. “[During the admissions process] we’re explaining something to our parents that we don’t really understand ourselves.”

That’s commitment. We serve remarkable students. 

After years of subtle (and not-so-subtle) disrespect and sleights, in recent years, men and women from Latino cultures have become the targets of outright racism, hatred and shockingly unfair treatment. And yet, they press on in spite of road blocks folks that look like me never faced. There are more Latino students in colleges today than any other time in U.S. history.  

But the other side of that reality is, as Eva-Marie Ayala wrote in the Dallas Morning News late last year, that only half of Latino college students graduate from college. Even fewer Latino students are even admitted to more selective institutions. The reasons for this are plentiful and problematic, but higher education marketing and admissions bear some responsibility for this, and we, as professionals serving our communities, need to make significant changes.

Even a quick look at our websites reveal that these students are succeeding in spite of us and not because of us. Before I sat down to write this article, I browsed a number of institution’s websites and marketing efforts, and, beyond a few select photos of Hispanic students “having totally normal fun like they always do out on the quad” with a group of equally-diverse-and-totally-not-selected-by-the-school’s-marketing-team students, I found little or nothing that actually spoke to this large, important part of our higher ed community, and their specific needs. I'm sure it's out there, but it isn't commonplace, and it should be.  

Here are some real facts: If your institution serves students in Florida, Texas, California or any number of other states, Latino students are and will continue to be a key driver of your enrollments. The Pew Research Center estimates that Latino students have enrolled in private and public colleges at triple the rate they did in 1999 (up to 3.6 million) and Hispanic students have made up the majority of Texas public school students since at least 2011. There is perhaps no one market segment so critically underserved by our marketing communications.

If you really want to meet the needs of a Hispanic student, you can’t simply throw a photo of a Hispanic student on your admissions site and call it a day. To do only that is criminal and unfair. You, your institution and your marketing teams need to make a planned, committed and serious effort to engage with your Latino communities to better understand their needs and tailor your messaging and offerings to them.

I’ve spent many years, in many contexts, asking Latino students about their experiences in higher education. Here’s what they’ve told me is important to them, but I encourage you to do the same thing for yourself. And tell me your thoughts, too. Life is growth. Let's learn together.

TAKE LATINO STUDENTS SERIOUSLY

Latino students want to know that you take diversity, and specifically Latino students, seriously. They don’t want to feel that from just one admissions counselor, but from the entire university, leadership included. Your marketing and admissions to Latino students should be true and relevant, as well as intentional, planned and measurable. Don’t just "serve" your Latino students – look to help them thrive.

To do that, you will have to identify, measure and interact with your Latino communities. That may look much different in San Antonio than it does in Miami or Dallas or Atlanta.

Start first by understanding. Work with your Institutional Research team to have a clear understanding of your communities. Read market research to better understand your area’s Latino community. There is great information out there already. Seek it out.

HOLD YOUR OWN FOCUS GROUP

Once you have good data and market research, it’s important to supplement it with quality qualitative data. At my previous institution, I spoke with many commuter students who were almost always first-generation college students. That reflected the reality of one city and one community. It’s extremely important to remember that not all Latino students are first-generation students. Not all are commuters. There are many different types of people represented under the banner of “Latino” or “Hispanic” or “Cuban-American” or “Mexican-American.” 

EDUCATE LATINO PARENTS

Remember Mary? She struggled to understand the admissions process and her parents, Mexican immigrants who did not attend college and spoke little English, struggled as well. She told me it would be helpful to have Hispanic students who had been through the admissions process to help her explain it to her parents.

Even better? Simplify these processes so that anyone can understand them. Quite frankly, English is my only language, and I have no clue what 95 percent of admissions processes mean. If you’re being honest, neither do you. Our admissions processes are written to be “academic,” but no one would accuse them of being “smart.”

That education doesn’t end at the admission process. Like many first-generation students, Mary struggled to explain exactly what she was doing in college. Her parents had no experience with higher education.

This is an opportunity to show real value. If your Latino community is largely first-generation, show real outcomes and upward mobility. You should be doing this anyway, but target it to these specific needs. What is the value of a college degree? How can it help a Latino student? What can the student do with it once he or she graduates?

Likewise, the most important aspects of a student’s legality in the U.S. can be what they don’t know. A community college student once told me he had a difficult time understanding his citizenship because his family had never discussed it. He found out during the admissions process that he was an undocumented student. Slow down. Understand that for many students, this is a very new process. 

GET REAL ON YOUR WEBSITE

There is no greater place of tone-deaf inanity than the University website, which stands to “serve and protect:” Serve its institution’s pompous ego and protect its community from reality. There, I said it. 

Your website should not only be a reflection of a diverse campus, but it should also be full of real, useful information targeted specifically to your prospective Latino students’ needs. Don’t be coy or vague. Show Latino students you care by creating special pages, sections or videos just for them. It may be appropriate to do this in Spanish or Portugese, and, when you do, don’t just hit “translate.” Find a writer who can truly translate information in the voice of your community.

CELEBRATE STUDENT CULTURES

My previous institution held a Hispanic Heritage Month that its President participated in readily. This sent a huge message to our Hispanic students, who noticed it, appreciated it and commented on it. How are you making these sort of celebrations and educations a part of your institution’s community? In a very divisive world, it’s your responsibility to send a message that all are welcome and celebrated at your campus.

HIRE LATINO PROFESSIONALS

Unfortunately, too many of our admissions, marketing and fundraising offices look awfully homogenous. This is the result of implicit bias during the hiring process that limits the potential of so many offices.

It is your responsibility to your institution to hire professionals in a way that represents the demographics of the communities you serve. Hiring qualified Latino professionals is not just good for the soul, it’s good for your institution. Diverse voices will bring valuable perspectives to your decision table.

We've made a bold claim, but we think this is an important topic. There is no doubt that many schools are serving these students quite well. We'd like to hear from you. Share in the comments what your institution is doing and how it's working. 

Note: In an effort to respectful to the myriad of cultures this discussion represents, I have tried to use accurate terminology. “Mexican-Americans” refers to American students of recent Mexican descent. “Latino” refers to all Latin American cultures within the U.S., including Portuguese-speaking cultures. “Hispanic” refers to U.S. students from cultures that share a common Spanish language. This is an ongoing debate and we’ll do our best to accurately reflect these terms in their appropriate use.

 D. White & Company stands proudly with all people who want to grow and learn in a University setting. We’d love to help you or your team conduct a focus group, do market research or otherwise better understand your communities. Set up an appointment with us today.