Broadening Educational Horizons: Mexican Universities in the U.S.

By Staff

In a strip mall just south of Los Angeles, the Universidad de Colima — a school headquartered in the Mexican state of Colima — offers mostly remedial education in reading, writing and math to about 100 adult Mexican immigrants. But a handful are also preparing to take their final exams for Mexican degrees. Universidad de Colima’s is just one of several recent efforts by Mexican universities to branch into providing full-fledged university educations in the United States.

In fact, according to The Hechinger Report, several Mexican universities are considering stepping in to offer accredited university classes in California and other states to serve primarily an immigrant population that lags far behind others in college education.

Nearly 34 million people in the United States identify themselves as Mexicans or of Mexican origin, but only a dismal five out of every 100 have university degrees, compared to about a third of immigrants in general, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

In California, 10 percent of Hispanic immigrants ages 25 and 26 have completed at least a two-year degree, compared to the state average of 36 percent, according to a report to be released later this year by the institute. Latino youth—both immigrants and those born in the United States—have the lowest rate of college attainment in California, researchers found.

Even those Hispanics who do enroll in American colleges and universities are 50 percent less likely than whites to earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24, the Pew Research Center reports.

Many U.S. universities, coping with competing demands for stretched resources, have been struggling to provide the kinds of support that could increase the number of Mexican-Americans who graduate. In a survey released in January by Hart Public Opinion Research, 40 percent of Hispanics said the American higher-education system was meeting their needs only somewhat well or not well at all. Many Hispanic students are the first in their families to go to college, come from high schools in low-income areas that don’t necessarily prepare them well for advanced course work, and are disproportionately reluctant to borrow to pay tuition.

Some Mexican universities, and their advocates, see an opening. Though most of the half dozen or so schools with U.S. centers now offer little more than English, Spanish and cultural classes, they’re eyeing greater prominence in the United States, and higher-level programs.

The Universidad de Guadalajara, for example, has set its sights on educating the millions of Californians from its home state of Jalisco. The university already offers a joint nursing degree in Los Angeles, but the partnership will end in October, and the school is studying whether to offer independent degrees there independently in several subjects.

Educational barriers such as cost and language have made life in the United States difficult for many Jalisco natives, said Guillermo Arturo Gómez Mata, who directs the university’s foundation and is helping to guide its future in Los Angeles. He told The Hechinger Report that there’s no timeline for when a decision about that will be made.

California, where public universities have been dealing with deep budget cuts and enrollment limits, will likely be the principal target of Mexican universities. There’s a huge market in the state, where Latinos now account for more than 52 percent of public school students, who will eventually be college-aged. A quarter of elementary-school students nationwide are Hispanic, Pew reports.

Several Mexican universities have already opened offices or started offering classes in California, including the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, or UNAM, which has a campus in Los Angeles in addition to one in San Antonio, Texas.

And professors from Zacatecas have come to Cal State Long Beach in the past year to research and develop joint courses, the first steps toward broader academic programs north of the border.

Conversations between Mexican and U.S. universities have increased to the point that U.S. accreditors, knowing they will be asked to evaluate more Mexican schools soon, are working with their Mexican counterparts to find out more about higher education south of the border, said William Plater, who advises the Western Association of Schools and Colleges – the primary accreditor in the western United States – on international affairs.

By international standards, “first-rate” universities are actually few and far between in Mexico; the U.K.-based Times Higher Education magazine rankings of the world’s 400 best universities includes just one, the flagship UNAM. But U.S. accreditation could help some overcome their image problem. And language and cultural connections could give them an advantage in the American market.

Some are skeptical that Mexican universities have the potential to transcend educational barriers rooted in U.S. immigration and social policies. A better way to narrow the achievement gap in California is to focus on providing remedial education to adult immigrants and better schools to younger ones, said Steve Boilard, director of the Center for California Studies at California State University in Sacramento.

Applying to college can be difficult under any circumstances, but language barriers and unfamiliarity with the American higher-education system compound those problems for Mexican-born applicants. Many Mexican immigrants would feel more comfortable applying to a Mexican university.

Advocates are talking about legal immigrants. But Mexican universities also might appeal to some of the approximately six million undocumented Mexican immigrants in the United States and their children, many of whom are unable to afford U.S. schools because of laws in most states banning them from receiving government financial aid.

It remains to be seen, however, whether Mexican universities will be cheaper or offer more financial aid than U.S. schools. Mexican institutions need to be smart about expanding north of the border. Mexican branch campuses could start by focusing on such subjects as agricultural science or water engineering. The Mexican universities also could offer joint degrees with U.S. partners.