Missouri's higher education institutions struggle to attract Latino students
None of the students in the University of Missouri system can major in Latino Studies. And neither can any student from some of the larger public universities in the state.
But one woman is trying to change that.
Dr. Deborah Cohen, a history professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has helped lead the charge to create a system-wide Latinx Studies minor along with a few other educators. Cohen is the director of UMSL's Latinx Studies program. Right now, the minor is only available at the St. Louis campus and was recently approved at the Columbia campus. It was approved in May 2022.
“Now the goal is to institute a system-wide minor, hopefully major, down the road that students wherever could take," Cohen said.
And it’s really about time Missouri’s top universities enter the 21st century, according to Cohen. Many schools across the country offer Latinx Studies, or a similarly-named program, as both a major and minor. This includes states with large Latino populations like California and Florida, but also Midwest states like Nebraska.
"There has been a lot of work done on the erasure of certain communities, especially communities of color. And Latinx people is one group who have been seen as laborers, but not as either citizens or potential future citizens. And that is the problem," Cohen said. "By finally doing this, I think a public acknowledgement of the presence of these communities that are here as citizens, not just as laborers, but as citizens or future citizens. And that is a very different way of understanding both the U.S. and way of understanding these communities."
Cohen teaches Introduction to Latinx Studies and she said the class is full almost every time it’s offered. But here’s the thing: she estimates about 90 percent of the students in the class don’t have any Hispanic heritage. And that’s a good sign for increasing biculturalism in the state.
“Part of one of the learning objectives is for students to recognize the assumptions they have about how the world works, and how this is culturally based," she said.
Which, she said, teaches students to question those assumptions.
And according to past student Megan Granger, these classes do just that. One of her majors was in International Studies with an emphasis on Latin America at the University of Missouri in Columbia about ten years ago—before Latino Studies was offered as its own minor program.
Now she lives in Minnesota where she said she still applies biculturalism to her perspectives and to how she raises her son.
Granger said to have these classes as someone who is non-Latino is "hugely valuable. Like, I mean, if we look at the world differently, we're going to come to a better solution if we can look at it at all angles.”
Although, Granger added she wished the classes were more focused as she felt like some didn’t connect to what she had actually intended to study.
"It was kind of a spattering of classes. I remember it wasn't a super formalized program at Mizzou," Granger said.
"Just to have an education that exposes you to differing backgrounds and different parts of history and different people in the world, it makes you realize that there is a different way of looking at it, and to have a more open heart and open mind when you encounter people that are different than you," she added.
Cohen agreed with Granger's assessment, linking it to Missouri's legislature: "This [Latinos] is a growing community. If they want to be able to do certain things, understanding about these communities is a good thing."
Missouri remains a tough state for Latino studies, and it also remains a place where there aren’t too many Latino students. In fact, Latinos only make up a little less than five percent of the state population. In line with that, about five percent of MU’s makeup is Hispanic or Latino.
Lena Rodriguez serves as the Senior Vice President for policy and government relations for the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU). It advocates on behalf of 559 federally-designated Hispanic-Serving Institutions [HSIs]. None of which are in Missouri.
“We see that the demographics are changing—right?—in the country. And in terms of how are we going to prepare that next generation, the workforce of our future? You know, these are institutions that are enrolling more and more Latino or Hispanic students," Rodriguez said.
Missouri is among 21 other states without HSIs, which means the state is missing out on the extra federal funding they provide.
Although no higher education institutions in Missouri have quite met the 25 percent threshold for enrollment of Latino students, Rodriguez said there’s a reason to keep working toward attracting diverse students.
“The fact that we have a more diverse community that is becoming more educated, and we're focusing on some of those strategies is critical to just the economic health in general of the communities that surround our institutions," she said.
UMSL’s Deborah Cohen said what could help with that is more state funding, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state cut millions of dollars of funding for higher education.
As of now, Cohen said the UM administration is looking for more interest from students before considering a system-wide minor and major. But the concept could lead to a chicken-or-the-egg-first debate.
"If you had vibrant programs, maybe you would attract more students to a lot of things, this is only a minor, right?" Cohen said. "So, it seems to me that, you know, they work in tandem both the development of the programs and the interest."
As far as outreach, Rodriguez said in the past six months, HACU has reached out to more than 25,000 institutions, including emerging HSIs, to keep them informed on financial opportunities, grant deadlines and how to increase enrollment numbers.
¿Dónde está mi gente? will continue with two more upcoming segments.
For the audio transcript, click here.
This article has been clarified to distinguish between Latinx Studies minor and Latin American Studies. Latinx Studies focuses on Latinx populations in the U.S. while Latin American Studies focuses on Latin America.