A Student Perspective on the Value of College Credentials for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous Communities

In the ever-evolving landscape of the 21st century, pursuing higher education has become integral to individual aspirations and societal progress. The discussion surrounding the importance of college credentials takes on profound significance, particularly when considering the experiences of Black, Latinx, and indigenous communities, which historically have faced significant barriers to accessing and navigating higher education. A recent webinar hosted by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education and the Lumina Foundation in February 2024 highlighted research and student perspectives on the value of college credentials. As a board member on the Student Advisory Committee for this research endeavor, our ongoing work aims to unravel the importance surrounding college credentials and how they matter to us, as today’s college students. 

Thus far, our work has captured national survey responses from TRIO Programs at the college level. In the survey, we asked Black, Latinx, and Indigenous TRIO college students nationwide what having a college degree meant to them and how pursuing this degree affected us. Among 1,800 respondents, the following prevailing sentiments emerged: students perceive their financial investments in college as pivotal for their professional advancement (80%; n=1801) and employability (92%; n=1800), broadening networks (81%; n=1789), enhanced critical thinking skills and personal growth (86%; n=1801), increased familial pride (91%; n=1789) and the chance to contribute meaningfully to their communities as knowledgeable professionals and experts in their field (82%; n=1789). 

“Despite the challenges, I remained determined to pursue a college degree. Like many students, I aspire to become the primary provider for my family and serve as a role model for my younger siblings and cousins, demonstrating that college is not an intimidating obstacle but a source of pride and opportunity.”

As a first-generation Mexican and Native American, my perspectives on the value of college credentials mirror those of my peers as well as fellow board member, Perseus (Percy) Cordero, a TRIO McNair Scholar at Westminster who participated in the student panel during the webinar. Like Percy, I grew up hearing that I would be going to college whether I liked it or not, but as I matured, so did those values. While my grandparents insisted on the importance of completing college and attaining a degree, my mom eventually stopped pressuring me. A proud Mexican, she never attended college. Instead, she belonged to the fortunate few for whom experience trumped formal education. While she imparted the importance of college to me, she never compelled me to pursue it. To her, firsthand experience held greater significance than acquiring college credentials. 

Despite the challenges, I remained determined to pursue a college degree. Like many students, I aspire to become the primary provider for my family and serve as a role model for my younger siblings and cousins, demonstrating that college is not an intimidating obstacle but a source of pride and opportunity. However, my greatest motivation for pursuing higher education is my grandfather. While possessing remarkable skills in areas like plumbing, electrical work, and mechanics, he never had the chance to pursue formal education. From a young age, he worked tirelessly to support his family, with education remaining out of reach. Reflecting on his life, I am saddened by the thought of the opportunities he missed due to his circumstances. If he had the resources and opportunities available to me today, he could have pursued a career as an engineer at NASA or even a CEO of his own company. His resilience and determination despite lacking formal education serve as an inspiration for me to pursue my dreams and strive for success in university. Though he may not have firsthand experience with higher education, his support has pushed me to strive for more in life.  

In our ongoing study on the importance of college credentials, we’ve not only delved deep into students’ perspectives on the value they place on higher education but also on the hurdles they face in attaining their degrees and the resources available to assist them. Looking back on the conversations within our board and my journey as a student, I’ve come to realize the immense significance of seeking support. A pivotal moment for me was when programs like the TRIO Student Support System (SSS) and Mesa at Yuba Community College provided me with transformative opportunities despite initial feelings of impostor syndrome. Attending conferences like the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science in Portland, Oregon, was initially daunting, but they turned out to be a life-changing experiences. Embracing the motto “fake it till you make it,” I found the courage to engage with professors and experts from around the world, eventually leading to incredible opportunities, including paid internship offers with NASA and the University of Buffalo. None of this would have been possible without asking for help. Through these experiences, I’ve expanded my professional network and gained confidence in myself as a student and future professional. The support systems available to me have been instrumental in my personal and professional growth, opening new horizons and opportunities I never thought possible. 

All in all, college has been incredibly beneficial for me. It has instilled the importance of being proactive and seeking assistance when necessary. It has empowered me with a sense of self-efficacy and agency, enabling me to embrace opportunities confidently, both those presented to me and those I actively seek out, welcome, and create. 

For Black, Latinx, and/or Indigenous individuals, attaining college credentials embodies more than just personal achievement. Those who obtained their credentials have become an instrument of change in our communities by forging pathways to a more inclusive and diverse future. As our study is still ongoing and more data continues to emerge, we invite you to join us on this journey as we uncover what obtaining postsecondary degrees truly means to us as Black, Latinx, and/or Indigenous individuals. If you are interested in attending a webinar presentation of the study’s findings in October 2024, click here.   

Kimberly Rivera is a member of the Pell Student Advisory Board and a participant in the TRIO Student Support Services program at Yuba Community College.

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