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Pushouts, Shutouts, and Holdouts: Adult Education Pathways of Latino Young Adults
Research on the graduation rates of Hispanic immigrants in the United States has focused primarily on the traditional high school to college pathway, overlooking a significant and growing sector of the Hispanic population: youth and young adults over age 15 who migrate with incomplete secondary education, due in large part to poverty and lack of access. This population with incomplete formal schooling has often — and erroneously — been labeled dropouts. In reality, many are pushouts, shutouts, or holdouts (see Box for descriptions).
The pathways of these immigrant Latino young adults are a general policy concern because of the impacts on their future labor market prospects and earnings, as well as the generational impact of low education on their children. The Obama administration's recent implementation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative, granting a two-year reprieve from deportation for unauthorized immigrants brought to the United States as children, has added greater importance to this issue in policymaking and educational circles because school enrollment is an essential criterion.
Though some dropouts will seek out educational opportunities in the United States, these young adults tend to be viewed by educators as hard to serve; enrollment data reveal a tendency for schools to discharge them before graduation. To date, studies on the educational pathways and experiences of immigrant high school dropouts have concluded that their interrupted education a) reflects structural and economic barriers to school participation; b) indicates a general disinterest in education; and c) represents a termination of their educational trajectories.
Presented here are findings from a mixed methods study of a subgroup of 149 Latino immigrants in New York City who came to the United States between the ages of 15 and 24 with incomplete secondary schooling and who later pursued further education through the adult education system. Results of this study shed important light on reasons for interrupting their schooling, and provide relevant data for educational policy and programming. This article also examines their views on education, their educational aspirations, and their experiences in nontraditional educational settings, revealing complexities in their experiences that are masked by the singular label of dropouts.
Data for this study were gathered from enrollment figures, a survey designed by the author, interviews, and focus groups with the subgroup of Hispanic students. This is a self-selecting group, having made a conscious decision to enter second-chance educational pathways. The researcher-generated survey was administered in 2010-11 to the 149 participants enrolled in seven free adult and second-chance educational programs in New York City, and results of this survey were triangulated with program enrollment data where available.
Immigrant Hispanic Young Adults in the United States
This study focuses on Latinos who immigrate between the ages of 15 and 24. In the United States, more than a quarter of all young adults are immigrants (first generation or foreign-born) or children of immigrants (second generation); this number is expected to top 30 percent by 2030. Those who arrived in the age group of 15 to 24 years old comprise nearly 25 percent of total entrants in 2000, up from 13 percent in 1990, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Since 1960, there has been a four-fold increase in the number of foreign-born Latinos living in New York City. Among immigrant New Yorkers, Latinos make up the largest share of both the population under 16 as well as of the young adult (16- to 24-year-old) population. In New York City, 41 percent of immigrants ages 16 to 24 are Latino (112,415). Of this group, nearly 27 percent (30,059) are official dropouts and not enrolled in school.
For immigrant dropouts, little is known aside from official census numbers on the size of the population, but no aggregate data are available on their pre-migration educational attainment, educational pathways, aspirations, knowledge of the U.S. educational system, local networks, or social capital that might facilitate their ability to navigate existing educational options.
Many states, including New York, have an official policy that allows young adults to enroll in high school up to age 21. There also exists a vast and complex network of second-chance programs offered by school districts, community colleges, churches, volunteer-run programs, and community-based organizations that teach young adults and adults to learn English and attain a GED. Such programs offer adult basic education, English as a Second Language (ESL), and preparation for the GED. These programs are supported by federal, state, local, and private funds. National adult education enrollment data reveal that such second-chance and adult programs serve significant numbers of immigrant young adults. In program year 2008-09, 27 percent of students enrolled in publicly funded adult basic education programs in New York state were immigrants ages 16 to 24. Of these young immigrants enrolled in adult education, those ages 21 and younger are still eligible to attend a traditional high school.
Misconceptions about Motives for School Interruption
Researchers have sought to learn about Latino young adult immigrants primarily by seeking them among the high school population, thus adding to our knowledge of the successes and challenges of immigrants in high school. Those not enrolled in K-12 pathways have been generally viewed as disconnected from education. Research focusing on immigrant young adults who are not enrolled in high school has concluded that their interests are primarily work-focused, and has long viewed these young adults as a fairly monolithic group of dropouts whose common feature is a disinterest in and disengagement with education after arrival in the United States.
The young adults in this diverse group migrate from Mexico, countries in Central and South America, and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. They have diverse combinations of school and labor market participation, and include young adults enrolled in adult education while working, those who work and do not attend school, as well as those who are disconnected from the labor market and not enrolled in school. With such variety among this subgroup, any generalizations are decidedly off the mark, yet few data are available that break down this group to enable a more fine-grained examination.
The Complexity Masked by the Dropout Label
Many factors have been found to correlate strongly with a high risk of school dropout, including low socioeconomic status, disinterest in education, and low achievement. Among participants in this study, school interruption occurred as early as age 10 and late as age 17. Although their common feature is an incomplete high school education, two distinct groups emerged in the sample: firstly, those who interrupted their schooling due to limited financial resources and poverty in their families of origin, and secondly those who abandoned their studies when they migrated. A very small number interrupted their schooling due to pregnancy or because they started a family with a partner.
Nearly all participants objected to the term dropout, explaining the variety of reasons for school interruption, including limited access and opportunity, economic pressures, and adult responsibilities that precluded continuing secondary school, as opposed to disinterest in education or low achievement. Some participants had attended high school until their departure for the United States. An extremely heterogeneous group, they included young men and women, parents and non-parents, workers and the unemployed, authorized and unauthorized, single and married or in civil unions. Some arrived in the United States accompanied by their parents, some to reunite with family members they had not seen for years, some as unaccompanied minors. Upon arrival, institutional barriers and economic circumstances hindered high school completion.
Statistically, interrupted schooling in this study's sample does not correlate with a lack of educational or career aspirations for the participants. The educational goals of these immigrant young adults challenge the notion that they have lost interest in education, as seen in Figure 2. Although nearly half of participants completed less than eight years of formal schooling in their country of origin, 73.1 percent expressed a desire to earn a college degree, from associate's to doctorate.
The post-migration educational experiences of the young adults in this sample are more complex than what the dropout label would suggest. Three distinct groups emerged from this sample of participants enrolled in second-chance education: pushouts – new high-school age, late-entrant immigrants who were counseled to discontinue high school attendance in the United States; shutouts – new immigrant young adults who intended to enroll in U.S. high schools upon arrival but were unsuccessful for a variety of reasons; and holdouts – labor migrants who immigrated with no intention of pursuing education, but re-entered school via adult education after years of working in low-wage jobs.
Voices of Pushouts
The practice of high school authorities to counsel or refer students to complete a GED or seek another alternative has been documented for decades in educational and policy research. Typically, students are at risk of being pushed out if they are over-age, have accumulated few credits toward graduation, are identified as having behavioral issues, have been chronically absent, are pregnant or parenting, are students in the workforce, or remain classified as Limited English Proficient (LEP) after years in the school system. Although the pushout phenomenon is not new, enrollments of young adults in adult education programs have been increasing. Late-arriving young adults are often unlikely to graduate within four years due to interrupted education and low English proficiency. In addition, they are likely to perform poorly on the mandated high-stakes assessments administered to all students and by which school performance is assessed. Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, schools are under increasing pressure to raise graduation rates and test scores or else face sanctions. In response to this pressure, schools have been known to push out groups that are low-performing, such as English Language Learners (ELLs) and late arrivals. Across the United States, it has become a documented practice for schools to encourage students who are older than average for their grade, those with few credits toward graduation, or those with interrupted schooling and limited English proficiency to abandon high school and instead pursue a GED.
Signing discharge papers creates an official record stating that the student left school by personal choice to pursue other options. The discharge pool is difficult to disaggregate, being a catch-all for students who leave the district, those who transfer to parochial schools, who leave due to pregnancy or family issues, or are counseled to pursue a GED or attend a job training program. The practice has been documented at length in New York City and was the centerpiece of a major civil suit against the public school system. Data gathered in New York City reveal that some schools have discharged more than half the number of students that they graduated.
The pushouts in this study are immigrant young adults who arrive in the United States and succeed in enrolling in high school, only later to be counseled or forced out of school. Of the 149 participants in this sample, 28 (19 percent) indicated that upon arrival, they had enrolled in high school in New York City. Their attendance ranged from one month to four years – and all were officially discharged by school staff. Among those, eight had attended high school for less than one year and 20 for between one and two years. Four had attended between two and four years of high school and two reported attending more than four years. Several reported having taken and passed one or more New York State Regents exams before being discharged. While most entered as ninth graders, some received course credit for academic work based on their foreign transcripts and were placed in tenth or 11th grade upon arrival.
Students' own accounts suggested that leaving school was by no means self-motivated. While some studies on disconnected young adults suggest that over-age and under-credited individuals typically become disengaged and choose to leave school, the participants in this study found their desire to continue education blocked at the local school level. They had actively sought out educational options and expressed concern about leaving school, worrying how incomplete education would compromise their future.
Voices of Shutouts
The same accountability pressures that lead schools to push out enrolled immigrant students serve as incentives to refuse admission to over-age and under-credited students, especially those who enter in the teenage years with limited English proficiency. As discussed above, the maximum age for legal enrollment in a New York State high school is 21; in practice, however, it appears that late-arriving immigrant young adults are barred from enrollment before they reach this age. Furthermore, new immigrant students often possess limited knowledge of their rights and entitlements within the public education system.
The group of shutouts includes immigrant young adults who might otherwise be assumed to be uninterested in high school, instead pursuing employment upon arrival. In reality, these students unsuccessfully sought entry into high school. In the New York City study, shutouts reported not enrolling in high school despite original intentions to do so for two primary reasons. One subset reported that their relatives or friends dissuaded them from enrolling in high school due to their older than average school age or their lack of legal status. As a result, they did not attempt enrollment. The other subset went to schools or enrollment centers directly but reported being turned away prior to any assessment for three primary reasons: being over-age for high school; not having school transcripts from their country of origin; and/or schools having no space/seats. More than 10 percent of study participants reported that they were sent directly to a GED program from the district enrollment office when they attempted to enroll. Others were simply turned away from high school and found their way into community-based GED and ESL programs via recommendations from family and friends.
School administrators consulted during the course of this study confirmed reports of schools shutting out students or sending them directly to GED programs despite legal eligibility for high school. Fearing repercussions, they insisted on anonymity.
Voices of Holdouts
Holdouts in this study are young people who have been active in the workforce and re-entered an educational pathway only after dedicating themselves solely to work both pre- and post-migration. Termed labor migrants in policy literature, many holdouts immigrate as young teenagers and quickly enter the labor market, primarily in low-wage in industries such as food service or construction. They come to the United States with the primary goal of working and earning money to send home via remittances, not of pursuing an education. Upon arrival, holdouts conclude that education is a higher priority than work, despite the need to continue to work. Contrary to their pre-departure intent to migrate exclusively in search of labor opportunities, they reported experiencing a shift in perspective after several years working in low-wage jobs, embracing a belief that education is the only pathway out of poverty. Some were adamant about not emulating older peers who spent decades working in low-wage jobs with no opportunity for advancement.
Not unlike pushouts and shutouts, this population presents a particular challenge with regard to data collection. As laborers who return to school after years in low-wage jobs (and who often continue working), they are not to be found among K-12 enrollment data. Those who re-enter education often attend community-based programs whose enrollment systems do not gather data on prior education or age of arrival, making them nearly invisible to researchers and policymakers. As young adults who need to balance work and school, they become stuck in low-wage jobs offering scarce opportunities for advancement.
Challenging the Dropout Label
In contrast to research that emphasizes dropouts' low educational aspirations and limited interest in school, all three subgroups in this study articulated aspirations to pursue college degrees and professional careers. Data suggest that the dropout label drastically limits understanding of the population in question, obscuring both their engagement with schooling and their educational goals. For participants in this study, limited academic skills, cursory knowledge of English, and lack of knowledge of postsecondary pathways stood in stark contrast to their high regard for education and efforts to attend school while balancing work and family commitments. Data indicate that for information about their U.S. educational pathways, most relied on networks of family and friends with limited education themselves; very few had social networks that included individuals with postsecondary experience. Though far from integrated into mainstream institutional structures, these immigrants embraced the dominant ideology that postsecondary education will lead to stability and economic success and that those who apply themselves will achieve their goals.
The results of this study highlight several key issues in educational policy and programming. First, the term dropout mislabels immigrants who face issues of equity and access that lead to school interruption. Second, the failure of immigrant young adults to enroll in high school must be understood in the context of economic and institutional constraints. Thirdly, the success or failure of immigrant young adults at acquiring academic skills and obtaining a diploma impacts their prospects in the labor market and has implications for upward mobility and their integration into the mainstream. Finally, while adult education programs provide essential second-chance opportunities for immigrants to build critical skills that are valued in higher education and the workforce, many of the young adults in this study originally aspired to graduate from traditional high schools.
These immigrant young adults' experiences highlight the importance of examining the institutional barriers preventing their enrollment in school. Of particular concern is students' ignorance of their rights with regards to the public educational system, which guarantees a primary and secondary education to all children residing in the United States regardless of their legal status. Their stories also underscore the need to re-examine the current federal educational policy that focuses on rewards and penalties based exclusively on school performance. Such policy sets unrealistic goals of four-year graduation with students needing – and being legally entitled to – more time to complete high school, and with little real incentive for serving students most in need of academic and social support.
The failure to examine the experiences of Hispanic immigrant young adults, and to ignore the barriers to their participation in education, perpetuates the idea that Latinos lack educational aspirations. In remedying these concerns, efforts of school officials to address academic skill and knowledge gaps, lack of social capital and knowledge of educational systems, remediation, postsecondary transition planning, and availability of professional and peer supports, may be met with success. In addition, schools will need to receive the necessary resources to support the success of students who arrive as teens with multiple educational needs.
Saddled with the lowest high school graduation and college completion rates, this growing population often relies on adult education providers and policymakers to understand the complexities of their situations and provide viable solutions. Findings from this study point to the need to explore the experiences of pushouts, shutouts, and holdouts in other areas of the United States. An understanding of the educational experiences of immigrants who seek education to improve their situations can inform future educational research, policy, and practice for all students.
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