Linguistic Minority Students Go to College: Preparation, Access, and Persistence. Yasuko Kanno and Linda Harklau, eds. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Minority populations in the United States are on a path to become the majority of the country by 2050. Their growth is driven largely by linguistic minority (LM) populations, people who speak a language other than English at home, with Latinos, according to data from the Pew Research Hispanic Center, accounting for 56 percent of the US population growth in the first decade of the twenty-first century. A college degree, Yasuko Kanno and Linda Harklau write in their introduction to Linguistic Minority Students Go to College: Preparation, Access, and Persistence, “has become an increasingly necessary qualification for securing and maintaining a middle-class job and lifestyle”—a fact well known by LM students and their families, many of whom come to the United States for educational opportunities. Although these students are not matriculating and succeeding in college at the same rates as their peers, college professors can expect to see more of them in their classrooms. Kanno and Harklau’s new collection is an invaluable and timely contribution that explores practices that hinder LM student success and what teachers, institutions, and governments can do to increase LM college-going and graduation rates.
Part 1, “College Preparation in High School,” focuses on how the types of classes and programs that LM students experience in high school affect their readiness for college. LM student potential is often hindered by a lack of advanced coursework, which can result from an extended ESL placement (as Rebecca M. Callahan and Dara R. Shifrer discuss in their chapter) or from limited access to accelerated math courses (the topic of Eduardo Mosqueda’s chapter). As Mosqueda emphasizes, LM students benefit from access to more courses with high standards so long as they receive necessary linguistic support: “Rather than delaying opportunities to learn college preparatory mathematics content, LM students require accelerated mathematics courses that integrate explicit scaffolding of the academic language of mathematics into the instruction of rigorous content.” Programs like the International Baccalaureate, which recognizes the value of linguistic diversity, provide one model for high schools interested in developing a more rigorous curriculum that provides support for LM student populations, as Anysia P. Mayer argues in her contribution to the volume.
The next section, “Access to College,” includes a variety of studies focused on students’ transition to college and does an excellent job revealing how LM student access to college is embedded in a broader context beyond the institution, whether state or national policies or family situations. With federal programs such as Pell Grants and Title V funding under attack, it is important to understand the role policy plays in facilitating LM college access. Cristóbal Rodríguez opens the section with a chapter focused on a Texas state policy that has helped promote the diversification of top state universities by guaranteeing admission to the top 10 percent of senior classes at all Texas high schools. Rodríguez found that this policy helped diversify top-tier institutions like the University of Texas at Austin. The policy supported LM success because such institutions generally had much higher graduation rates for all students than the local institutions near the Mexican border that many LM students attend. Anne-Marie Nuñez and P. Johnelle Sparks note that LM students from low-income households frequently choose to attend local institutions that are less academically challenging. Governmental policies can reduce some of the barriers associated with income inequality by ensuring that LM students have access to financial-aid information and promoting more financial-aid opportunities.
A few chapters in the final section, “College Experiences and Persistence,” provide disturbing evidence of how institutions consistently alienate LM students, adding yet another educational barrier. Ronald Fuentes reports on a case study of Nasim, a refugee from Iran, who struggled in an environment that favored native English speakers. She was minimally involved on campus because of her perception that high English proficiency was required. In another chapter, Shawna Shapiro describes how one ESL program operated from a “deficit model,” alienating students by requiring additional tuition on top of their normal out-of-state tuition rates. Echoing Fuentes’s findings, Shapiro points out that such practices “undermine students’ sense of belonging” by treating them as aliens. Contributors to this section also question the placement of LM students in ESL courses: George C. Bunch and Ann K. Endris note that most institutions steer LM students toward these ESL courses, even though, as Cate Almon shows, ESL placements often mean lower overall college success rates. While ESL programs are often an important part of facilitating student success and adaptation to English academic discourse, they are not for everyone. For instance, recent research has shown how LM students who have had part or most of their education in the United States may feel overly stigmatized by an ESL placement and further alienated by an ESL curriculum targeting international students. Nonetheless, these programs can be beneficial when students have the opportunity to decide whether to be placed in them and the programs themselves are not marginalizing.
An important strength of Kanno and Harklau’s collection is the way it balances a realistic assessment of the challenges facing LM students with a recognition that LM students regularly succeed against the odds, in large part because of their own efforts as well as support from their families and communities. A number of chapters emphasize students’ agency, including Manka M. Varghese’s chapter about a student who succeeded in an unsupportive institutional environment. In another chapter, Linda Harklau and Shelly McClanahan identify factors working against LM students, such as disrupted schooling and unstable family income. However, the student who is the focus of their article did make it to college, an accomplishment that the authors attribute to facilitative factors such as parental and sibling support, religiosity, and self-efficacy.
As the US population becomes more diverse, professors at all types of postsecondary institutions can expect to see more LM students in their classes. Reading books like Kanno and Harklau’s collection is an important way to learn more about the new student population. However, learning more is not enough. Academics across disciplines need to support advanced coursework in high school while advocating for state and national policies that promote college access for LM students. Faculty members need to learn about and develop teaching practices that support students who come to college with limited high school preparation, who may have to work part or full time to support their studies, who may struggle with aspects of academic English, and who may have to care for a dependent or two. These practices will ultimately benefit students and families as well as our country as a whole. Immigrants have long been vital to the American success story, and we will need a highly educated and creative workforce to sustain our country’s success in the twenty-first century.
Todd Ruecker is assistant professor of English at the University of New Mexico. He specializes in second-language writing, with a specific interest in improving college access and support for linguistically and culturally diverse writers. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.