This is the biggest misperception keeping Hispanic students from attending college

Reassure first-generation Hispanic students in university advertising that they don't need to "know before they go." The university will be there to guide them to the right career path.
Pearl Owen
Pearl Owen
Pearl Owen is a cultural strategist who researches diverse communities across a breadth of categories ranging from higher education to public health. She was born and raised in Mexico and is currently the managing strategy director at Sensis, a full-service advertising agency working with higher education institutions.

In recent agency research, a young first-generation Hispanic college student shared that she was initially not going to attend college because she did not know what to study. She and her parents knew of only a few career paths: doctor, nurse and engineer (her parents were janitors for an engineering firm). The challenge was that none of these paths aligned with this young Hispanic student’s interests or strengths—she did not like math.

Instead of signing up for college to explore options and find her path, the young Hispanic student was going to just start working. It was her impression, as it is for many Hispanic first-gen students, that college was only for those with clear plans; other students have it all figured out. Given the sacrifices their family would have to make for them, it’s best not to wade into uncharted waters.

This myth that college is only a place for those who know what to study means that many Hispanic youth are denied the opportunity to get on campus and access the support, exposure and experiences that could broaden their horizons and help them find their own true calling.

As a career switcher and soul searcher myself, I have had the privilege of leaning into education to find my path in life. As an undergrad, I majored in biology and took many creative elective courses along the way. After law school, I returned to school for an MBA, where I was guided into advertising. It’s a luxury and a privilege to find one’s calling while studying, something many Hispanic first-gen students feel is not for them.

Nearly 44% of all Hispanic college students are first-generation—students whose parents did not complete a four-year degree. These numbers are much higher in states like California where, in years past, three out of four Latinos at the University of California were the first in their family to reach higher education.

As colleges look to grow admissions by attracting more Hispanic students, understanding and overcoming this misperception will be critical to their growth. Their barriers are in great part financial but also partly a misperception about what college life is like.

More from UB: Why we must improve opportunity and accessibility for adult learners

How to encourage first-gen Hispanic students to apply

Academic intuitions can explore a variety of ways to bridge this gap.

● Invest time at local elementary and junior high schools planting career-path seeds as early as possible to both inspire students about what’s possible as well as build the university’s brand name early.

● Provide access to online tools and assessments that align personal skills and interests with career paths so students can learn about careers they may never have heard of before.

● Build relationships with Hispanic parents. While the parents of many first-generation students defer to their child’s choices, these parents form powerful support systems for their student, like the father of our research participant.

● Reassure first-generation Hispanic students in university advertising that they don’t need to “know before they go.” The university will be there to guide them to the right career path.

A university’s efforts to overcome this fundamental misperception don’t diminish the need for financial support and overall mentorship once on campus. However, educating would-be students about all the career paths and support available to them once part of an academic institution could go a long way in bringing more Hispanic students to campus.

There is a bittersweet ending for the young Hispanic student we spoke with in our research. Her father called upon their neighbor to encourage her to apply to college and support her in all the logistics of financial aid. Sadly, he died not long after she was accepted into college. But the college he had shepherded her into rallied around her with even greater financial and moral support.

She is now a thriving sophomore on the verge of transferring to UCLA to complete her communication degree.


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