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What Happens in College Also Affects the Immigration Debate

Article by William McKenzie September 30, 2014 //   4 minute read

We often think of the immigration debate in terms of border crossings, guest workers and the status of illegal immigrants. But there is another big angle to the debate, and that is the way in which immigrants assimilate into American life.

Non-profits, religious institutions and cultural/civic organizations play key roles in helping immigrants find their way into the larger culture. So do schools. In fact, classrooms often are the gateway into American life for students from immigrant backgrounds.

The problem is, this work is hard and often filled with pitfalls. That’s true at the collegiate level, too. Author Paul Tough recently noted one important challenge for community colleges. Writing in the New York Times Magazine last spring, Tough reported:

Education advocates have identified remedial math in community college as a particularly devastating obstacle to the college hopes of many students, especially low-income students, who disproportionately attend community college. The statistics are daunting: About two-thirds of all community-college students are placed into one or more remedial math classes, and unless they pass those classes, they can’t graduate. More than two-thirds of them don’t pass; instead, they often drop out of college altogether.

Of course, developmental education includes more than students from immigrant families. Yet Hispanic students are a major part of many community college systems.

In the Dallas County Community College District, Hispanic students make up about 37 percent of the enrollment. Nationwide, community colleges are the entry point into higher education for many Hispanic students. About half of Hispanic students seeking higher education start there.

And Tough is not wrong about developmental education being a deal-killer. This reality was the subject of a panel during an Education Writers Association seminar at SMU's Simmons School this month. David Baime of the American Association of Community Colleges noted that about 60 percent of community college students need some form of remediation.

With the comments from Tough and Baime in mind, I looked further into the issue of developmental education. This Dallas Morning News column especially dealt with the challenge of developmental math.

My point in the piece is that waiting until college to catch students up in a subject like math may be too late. The real work has to start way before the, and often with the educators themselves.

Here are three examples of what I mean:

  • Education schools need to make sure prospective teachers leave college with a substantial grasp of math. 
  • School districts must make sure professional development keeps educators on top of the subject.
  • Principals should keep teachers on top of classroom data so students don’t fall off track.

Again, this challenge affects more than students from immigrant families. Still, developmental education is one of those places where the debate over immigration merges with the world of education.

This sounds wonky. But getting subjects like math right shapes the economic and social mobility of students from immigrant families.

William McKenzie is editorial director at the George W. Bush Institute.