Frank Alvarez, at center, President and CEO of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, wants a college degree in every Latino household. (Photo/Hispanic Scholarship Fund)

Hispanic Scholarship Fund’s Frank Alvarez: “We want a college diploma in every Latino household”

When Latino students and parents first meet Frank Alvarez, the President and CEO of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, (HSF) Alvarez knows they are assuming he was a “brainiac” who had an easy – or at least traditional – educational trajectory.  They are in for a surprise.  “I tell them I graduated high school with less than a 2.0 average,” says Alvarez, with a smile.

A third-generation Mexican American, the man in charge of the largest Latino scholarship organization in the country dropped out of community college and returned only years later, after volunteering in the Army during Vietnam.   Once he returned, though, he turned his life around, and he credits it all to education.  Now his job is to spread the word – and help Latino students get there.

“In two generations, we can move the finish line from the high school finish line to the college finish line,” says Alvarez.  “We want a college degree in every Latino household in this country,”  he adds, discussing HSF’s Generation First Degree initiative.  The campaign was created to provide scholarships and support to highly qualified Latino students who are the first in their families to attend college.  It was started in 2010 in association with the White House, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation.  The goal is to add over 14 million new Latino college graduates by 2025, which would help bring the national degree attainment rate to 60 percent as well as help close educational disparities.

While a college degree is one of the key factors in advancing a Latino student into the middle class, Alvarez says increasing the country’s college graduates goes beyond the benefits to Latino families.  ” When we go beyond a 19 percent college degree attainment to 60 percent, the net increase in revenues for the country is 3 trillion dollars,” Alvarez says.  “Think of what that could buy – more money for schools, firefighters, community resources.  This is not just a Latino issue; it’s a national issue,” he adds.

On Latinos and higher education, there has been encouraging news.  A recent Pew Hispanic report by Richard Fry and Mark Hugo Lopez found Hispanic bachelor’s degrees as well as associate degrees have reached a historic high in the last couple of years, and these graduation rates have increased seven-fold in the last 40 years, outpacing some other groups.

RELATED: Report: Latinos are the largest minority group in college campuses 

Of even more interest to Alvarez, however is the 3 percent increase, from 2010 to 2011, of Latinos eligible for college – in other words, the increase in Latinos graduating from high school or getting a GED.  “From a statistical perspective this is significant, and it catches your eye, especially during bad economic times,” says Alvarez.  “Perhaps the message, that we should be going to college, is getting through,” he says.

Latinos still lag far behind, however, in degree attainment.  As of 2010, only 9 percent of the nation’s bachelor’s degrees and 13 percent of the associate’s degrees were awarded to Hispanics.  Though Latino families know the importance of a college education, “it’s a matter of getting information,” Alvarez says.  “It is helping them with the necessary steps needed to get from middle school to high school to college,” he adds.

The Hispanic Scholarship Fund makes available a free DVD in English or Spanish on the importance of college and the road to get there.  A big factor is cost.  “You ask Latino parents what their biggest concern about college is, and it’s always cost,” says Alvarez.   Yet Latinos are the group which least takes advantage of the available Pell Grants, which are funds that do not have to be paid back.  Alvarez says HSF explains the difference between grants, loans and work-study, and  helps families budget accordingly.

But before a family can think of college, a Latino high school student has to be ready to go.  The Hispanic Scholarship Fund is now working on the creation of a second campaign to help make the connection between the different careers available to Hispanics and the connection between high school courses and college majors.  “A Hispanic parent without a formal education is familiar with the work of an attorney or a doctor, but not as familiar with how one can become a financial analyst, or an astrophysicist,” says Alvarez.  “Our plan is to create videos in which successful Latino professionals can talk to parents about the process involved to reach their specific careers,” he says.  This is especially important since more Hispanics are needed in the science, technology, engineering and math careers, known as STEM, a phrase which by itself might not mean much to some parents or students.

Hispanic Scholarship Funds Frank Alvarez: We want a college diploma in every Latino household    frankalvarezwithwinners education NBC Latino News

HSF Pres. and CEO Frank Alvarez, at far right, with 2012 HSF “Leaders in Education” winners. (Photo/Hispanic Scholarship Fund)

Getting to college is one thing, but it is crucial to improve Latino college graduation rates. “Our Latino students graduate at about an 85 percent rate in five and a half years,” says Alvarez.  HSF has campus chapters to help Hispanic students connect and receive mentoring, if necessary.

HSF’s main work, though, is what they have been doing since 1975, giving the largest amount of scholarships to Latino students, and guiding families along the way.   Alvarez encourages more Latinos as well as organizations to get involved. In the end, says Alvarez, the need for more Latino college graduates is not just a Hispanic issue.  ” Education is a national priority.  There is a wave cresting, and everyone realizes we cannot get there unless Latinos make it.”

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