Mexican colleges look to expand in U.S. to serve immigrants

In an ethnically themed shopping center called Plaza Mexico just south of Los Angeles, a public university from the Mexican state of Colima has planted its flag.

Alongside the shopping center’s stores and taquerias, the University of Colima offers mostly remedial education in reading, writing and math to about 100 Mexican immigrants. But a handful of students here are preparing to take their final exams for Mexican degrees, just one of several recent efforts by Mexican universities to branch into providing full-fledged university educations in the United States.

“It’s important for at least one university to pursue this,” said Ana Uribe, a University of Colima professor who runs the Lynwood branch.

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

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

Conversations between Mexican and U.S. universities have increased to the point that U.S. accreditors, knowing they’ll 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.

“We think it’s in our best interest to learn more about quality assurance,” he said.

The days of Mexican campuses in the United States are just around the corner, some said.

“I don’t think it will be five, 10, 20 years” before Mexican universities build U.S. campuses, said Jonathan Brown, a higher-education consultant who’s working with Mexico’s Center for Higher and Technical Education as it decides whether to expand to Sacramento. “I think it will be sooner. In the next few years, we’re going to be 2 million degrees short of what California needs. Who wouldn’t want to go to a first-rate (Mexican) university close to home?”

Nearly 34 million people in the United States identify themselves as Mexican or of Mexican origin, but only 5 out of every 100 have university degrees, compared with about a third of immigrants in general, according to the Migration Policy Institute. About 35 percent of native-born citizens do.

In California, only 10 percent of Hispanic immigrants ages 25 and 26 have completed at least two-year degrees, compared with the state average of 36 percent, according to a report to be released soon 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 Hispanics who do enroll in American colleges and universities are 50 percent less likely than non-Hispanics are to earn bachelor’s degrees by age 24, Pew 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 Research Associates, 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 money 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 north of the border and higher-level programs.The University of Guadalajara, for example, has set its sights on educating the millions of Californians who are 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 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 Gomez Mata, who directs the university’s foundation and is helping to guide its future in Los Angeles. He said there was no timeline for when a decision about that would be made.

“We feel morally obliged to help them with their academic profiles,” said Mata, adding that the school also is exploring U.S. accreditation. “We are walking in the right direction, but we also know we have more work.”

He and other advocates are talking about legal immigrants. But Mexican universities also might appeal to some of the approximately 6 million Mexican immigrants who are in the United States illegally and their children, many of whom are unable to afford American schools because of laws in most states banning them from receiving government financial aid.

“Is there a need? Yes,” said Fernando Leon Garcia, the president of the Center for Higher and Technical Education, which has taken its first steps toward a campus or center near Sacramento and already has been accredited to operate in the United States. The university educates about 300 San Diego-area students at its Mexican campuses along the border, Leon Garcia said.Several Mexican universities already have opened offices or started offering classes in California, including the National Autonomous University of Mexico, which has a campus in Los Angeles in addition to one in San Antonio.

Some are skeptical that Mexican universities can 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, the director of the Center for California Studies at California State University in Sacramento.

“Maybe we need more adult education to teach basic skills,” said Boilard, previously higher-education chief for California’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office. “The answer isn’t necessarily to bring in foreign universities. Our public universities have an obligation to serve the population.”

Barring that, however, at least some Mexican schools appear set on expanding their U.S. operations.

“It’s a huge opportunity for us,” said Jake Pacheco, a spokesman for the nearly 70-year-old San Antonio campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, which he said was in the process of getting its U.S. accreditation with an eye toward vastly expanding its offerings from language classes to full-blown academic courses that would cater to the enormous market of Mexican immigrants who need higher education.

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, said Yunuen Valenzuela, a Tucson, Ariz., doctor who moved to the United States from Mexico 25 years ago, when he was 13.

“A lot of my peers didn’t feel they could go to school,” he said, noting the voluminous, confusing paperwork involved in the admissions grind. “They felt like that whole process was too daunting. If (Mexican universities) advertise enough and target that population, I think a fair number of people would be interested.”