Stephen Smith: From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary.

Mario Martinez: Took me a long time to convince myself I need an education

More Latinos are going to college than ever before.

Brad Stewart: They know that this is the chance to make it to the middle class

Thalia Navarrete: Either you stay behind or you keep going. It's the choice you have to make.

But most Latinos who start college never get a degree. And that's a big problem because Latinos are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. Experts say unless more of them succeed in college, there won't be enough qualified people to do the jobs of the future.

In the coming hour, "Rising by Degrees" from American RadioWorks.

First, this news.

Speaker: Hello, hello, hello…

It's a summer morning and about 200 high school students are packed into an auditorium at Towson University in Maryland.

Speaker: Are you excited?

Crowd: Yeah.

This is the Hispanic Youth Symposium.

Idalia Fernandez: We created the Hispanic Youth Symposium to get students to believe that they can go to college.

Speaker: What is your dream? Can you see it? If you can't see it you'll never achieve it.

The students are here four days, learning how to write college application essays, how to fill out financial aid forms. They live in the dorms, and they eat in the dining hall.

German Osorio: I gave him that big, fat piece of pizza and he's like "trust me, this is good, this is good."

This is the first time a lot of these students have ever been on a college campus.

Osorio: My name is German Osorio. I'm originally born in the USA but my parents are from El Salvador.

German is going into tenth grade. A teacher told him about this program.

Osorio: First I was like, I might go to college. Now I'm like positive. I'm like "got to go to college, I'm going to college."

German says he'll be the first in his family.

Osorio: I want to have a professional job. Not like my family, like gardeners, fast food restaurants, construction workers. I want to do something different.

[Music: Where It's At - Beck - Odelay - DGC Records]

From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, "Rising by Degrees." I'm Stephen Smith.

A generation ago, most young Latinos like German Osorio did not go to college. Now they do.

James Rosenbaum: We have racial gaps in almost every level of education. Going to college is not one of them.

James Rosenbaum is a sociologist at Northwestern University. He says, if they graduate from high school, 80 percent of Latinos go on to college. Problem is, most of them never finish college.

Rosenbaum: We have a serious problem in completion, a very serious problem.

And Rosenbaum says every American should be worried about this, for a couple of reasons. First, half of all new jobs being created in the United States require some kind of college education. And second, young Latinos are the fastest growing segment of the population. By the year 2050, one in three U.S. residents will be Hispanic. Unless more young Latinos get college degrees, America won't have enough qualified workers to do the jobs of the future.

[Music: Where It's At - Beck - Odelay - DGC Records]

Over the next hour, we're going to meet two young Latino college students in suburban Washington, D.C. - Katy Sorto and Mario Martinez. For Mario and Katy college is not full of new friends and football games. It's hard, and lonely. American RadioWorks producer Emily Hanford has our story.

Emily Hanford: I met Katy Sorto a few days after her high school graduation. It's June of 2008. She's 18 years old.

Katy Sorto: I didn't feel that proud graduating from high school. I mean I was because it's a big step - big, big step - but I didn't feel that much.

Everyone else was proud. Her whole family was there, they were all excited. A lot of her cousins, her friends dropped out of high school; Katy says they never expected to graduate. She's one of the first in her family to make it. But when she marched up on stage to get her diploma, she was thinking to herself:

Sorto: I say this is not enough, this is not enough.

Katy first got the idea she could go to college in tenth grade, when she went to the Hispanic Youth Symposium. She was amazed to find so many people encouraging Latinos to go to college.

Sorto: "You can do it, come on, make us proud."

Katy's parents never talked about college. She says they didn't get much education - her mom didn't make it past fourth grade. They were born in El Salvador, came to the United States before Katy was born. Her father works construction. Her mother runs a home day care business.

Sorto: They just know I'm going to college and that's it. "Oh, great, I'm proud of you. Who's giving you the money?"

Katy says her parents don't really understand why she wants to go to college. Especially her dad; she says he doesn't think she'll make it. So Katy's on her own in terms of figuring out where to go and how to pay for it. Her dream is Georgetown University. She knows about Georgetown because at night she cleans offices at a law firm in downtown D.C. Katy noticed that a lot of the lawyers went to Georgetown; she sees their diplomas on the walls.

Sorto: They have money, they have like beautiful offices, and I've been seeing pictures from their weddings, and it's beautiful. It's just, it's nice.

Hanford: So they seem to have a life that you want to have?

Sorto: Yes.

This is Katy's dream: to live the life she imagines the lawyers are living - while she cleans their offices.

[Music: Where It's At - Beck - Odelay - DGC Records]

This desire for a different life is so palpable when you talk to young, Latino college students. They are determined to make a new future for themselves and their families. But for Mario Martinez, going to college is not just about getting to a different future. It's about overcoming a troubled past.

Mario Martinez: Middle school and high school was a lot of getting in trouble. I was caught up with the wrong crowd. I didn't have any smart friends you would say. I mean my friends were smart - but nobody would actually do the work. We was the bad crowd in high school.

Mario failed 9th grade, tried it again, dropped out, went to another high school - but lasted only two months. He was kicked out a few days before his 16th birthday and got a job as a cashier at Whole Foods.

Martinez: I had no plans of my future at all. I had, I don't know what I was thinking, I was completely lost. I just knew I was going to grow old. And that's basically it.

Mario's 19. He has a big, friendly smile. He was born in the United States; his mother's from Guatemala, his dad from El Salvador, and he grew up in Langley Park, Md. He says it was a rough neighborhood.

Martinez: We would hear police every night, we'd hear gunshots, we'd hear people scream, we'd see certain stuff in the neighborhood and ... The notoriously violent Salvadoran gang MS-13 was everywhere, says Mario. And when he was 16 years old, Mario was arrested. He was picked up in connection with a drive by shooting, taken away with several suspected gang members, and charged with attempted murder. Mario spent seven months in jail. But his case never went to trial. The charges were dropped. He returned home, eventually got a job with a contractor installing wood floors.

I would leave the house around six in the morning, and sometimes come home at 11 at night and had to do the same thing over again the next day.

And he says he started thinking about the future for the first time ever, and wondering: was he going to do this for the rest of his life? What are the other options? He had no ideas, no role models. So he started asking people at the homes where he installed floors.

Martinez: We would go to a lot of big people's houses, like mansions. And I started asking a lot them what they would do - like what was their career? They wouldn't want to tell me what they was working in but they would tell me, you know, they got there because of school.

So Mario started thinking about school. He earned his high school equivalency - his GED - while he was in jail. The next step was college. He asked around, trying to figure out how people get to college. And everyone told him, "Go to MC."

Female greeter: Need some directions? Need a campus map? Know where you're going?

MC stands for Montgomery College. It's a community college in Montgomery County, Md., just outside of Washington, D.C. Most Latino college students - 55 percent - go to community colleges like this one.

Brad Stewart: Well, today's first day of school.

This is Brad Stewart. He's a vice-president and provost at Montgomery College. It's just after 9 o'clock in the morning, and he's headed to the parking garage.

Woman: Fifth floor is available.

Man: All the way to the top…

The last parking spot has just been taken. So Stewart grabs a walkie-talkie and helps direct traffic.

Stewart: The garage is full, the overflow parking is at Bonifant and Dixon…

Enrollment is way up here, as it is at community colleges across the country. Stewart says people are coming to community college in droves because they're looking for two things. One is an inexpensive way to get a degree. Tuition here is about $4,000 for a full-time student. It's more than twice that at the University of Maryland just down the road, and six times as much at most private colleges. The other thing students are looking for is convenience. And Stewart hopes the parking situation won't be too frustrating because the whole idea of being a college student is kind of a fragile thing for many of the people who come here.

Stewart: And anything that gets in the way - like, duh, parking - will send some of them away.

Female parking attendant: Sweetie, the garage is full…want me to go to Bonifant?

More than half of the people who start community college with the goal of getting a degree still don't have one six years later. So there's a lot of failure here. But there's a lot of opportunity too. If Montgomery College weren't here, there would be nowhere for many of these students to go. You don't need good grades or high test scores. All you have to do is sign up. That's what Katy Sorto did. Her ultimate goal is still Georgetown University - but her plan is to spend two years here, get an associate's degree, then transfer.

On the first day of classes I arrange to meet up with her in the campus center. She arrives with a friend.

Thalia Navarrete: I'm shy.

This is Thalia Navarrete.

Navarrete: Katy is my best friend and I've known her for five years.

Katy and Thalia went to high school together - in a neighboring county. They could have gone to community college there, but Katy wanted to come here because this is a wealthier county. It's where a lot of Georgetown-educated lawyers live. Katy wants to be part of that world. I ask her how she's feeling on her first day of college.

Sorto: I'm nervous. I'm just nervous.

Thalia is too. She says their high school wasn't very good, she didn't learn enough.

Navarrete: They don't teach you anything. The teachers don't care. They just, like let you sleep in class.

Thalia thinks college is going to be hard, and she's not ready for it.

Sorto: Good luck Thalia - love you - bye! Oh, we forgot to take the picture…

Hanford: Oh, let me take a picture of you right now, I'll take a picture.

I put the microphone down and get my camera out. Katy and Thalia lean in and smile. They say their moms want the picture. Then Thalia leaves for her class, and Katy goes to hers. She takes a seat in the back row.

Professor: All right, so this is EL-101 and RD-101, learning community, everybody in the right place?

A "learning community" is actually two classes combined in one - a writing course and a reading course. Students will be in this class together eight hours a week. The idea is for them to get to know each other. Many community colleges have started setting up classes this way because a sense of community is the very thing a lot of community colleges lack. Students don't live in dorms, don't eat together in a dining hall. Most of them come for class, then rush off to work or to their children. So community colleges are trying to promote a sense of community inside the classroom.

Professor: I'm going to just ask people to say their names. We have 22 people in this class, it's a full class.

Female student: OK, my name is Wagaye. I'm from Ethiopia. I have been here like, a year and four months.

Male student: My name is Benjamin Novela. I'm from Mozambique. I've been here, like, three years.

Female student: My name is Alula Kadima.

It turns out this is an English as a second language course. The students have been in this country a few months, a few years. Then it's Katy's turn.

Sorto: Hi. I'm Katie and I was born in New Jersey, and I was raised in El Salvador.

One of the professors pipes up from the front of the room - "I thought it was Katy," she says. The professor met her briefly before class.

Sorto: It doesn't matter. Katie or Katy, it doesn't matter.

Katy seems a little embarrassed. I'm wondering if she feels awkward in this class, introduced herself with the Americanized version of her name as if to say, "I'm an American." Katy did live in El Salvador with her parents for many years, but the family came back to the states when Katy was 11. She spent seven years in American public schools. She's the only one in this class who graduated from a U.S. high school.

Professor: We're going to start today testing and testing and testing…

All of these students have already taken a placement test to get put in this class. The tests today are so the professors know exactly what skill levels they're dealing with. The students take a grammar quiz, a reading test, they write an essay. After nearly two hours, they get a break. Katy says she needs a cup of coffee. So we walk to the campus center.

Katy chats in Spanish with the woman working the register. Then we sit down. She tells me she's worried about money. She has financial aid, but something went wrong with the paperwork and she just got a bill for $800. And she's nervous about the English class. She says the tests were hard. I'm surprised. I thought she was going to say they were too easy, given how long she's been going to school in the United States. But Katy says no, the class is exactly what she needs.

Sorto: The people there is with the same condition as me. It's good.

Katy says finally, she might really learn how to read and write well in English.

But Katy will not earn any credits that count toward a degree in the English as a second language class. And she has to take six more before she can take an English class that counts. Most community college students - more than 60 percent - have to take some sort of non-credit or remedial class.

Rosenbaum: In some ways, they aren't even in college yet.

Northwestern University sociologist James Rosenbaum studies community college students.

Rosenbaum: They're in college buildings, but they're in college buildings taking high school courses.

And many of them don't realize they're not in college-level classes.

Rosenbaum: It sort of gradually dawns on them that they're not getting credits and sometimes they don't even realize it in their second year of college. But when they learn this, it's a big disappointment.

And many of them drop out. But Mario Martinez didn't. He started at Montgomery College in a remedial writing class. He took it in the summer of 2008 and he did well, got a B. So by the fall, he's ready for college-level English.

Elevator: First floor going up.

I meet Mario on campus one night. He's taking the class at night because he's trying to find a job. We take the elevator to his classroom on the third floor of the campus center.

Professor: After you look at the purpose for writing the essay, I want you to look at the writing style because in each essay it's different.

It's pretty impressive that Mario's in college-level English already. He didn't even make it through tenth grade. A lot of students who get high school diplomas don't get to college level classes this quickly.

Martinez: This is a difficult problem and some wise and compassionate people are working hard at it…

Mario's been called on to read aloud from one of the essays the class read for homework. He's supposed to identify where the writer states the main idea. Turns out Mario's a bit off.

Professor: The actual main idea is a little farther down in that same paragraph…

Mario's classmates rib him gently for not getting it right, and he smiles. Later, I ask Mario if he thinks he needs what he's learning in this class.

Martinez: Oh yeah, I need it a lot. I would have a lot of conversations with friends and sometimes they would tell me that I jump around and get off topic. And that was the first subject she spoke about, about trying to stay focused and concentrated on one subject. I know I need it.

Mario's plan is to go to Montgomery College for two years, then transfer to a university. Mario has no idea what he wants to major in, what he wants to do with his life. But he hopes college is going to help him figure it out.

Martinez: I mean I'm just walking around trying to catch things, like I'm on the learning mode right now, just see what I can learn. And then, go from there.

Katy: ¿Que? Que voy a pasar. A la clase…

The next time I see Katy Sorto it's October. She's rushing across campus, calling out in Spanish to a classmate. Katy's on her way to see her writing professor. She says she needs help.

Sorto: I'm sorry, is professor Donahue in here?

Woman: Not yet, she comes here at 3:30.

Sorto: 3:30?

Katy says she has an appointment, so we sit and wait. She tells me she's exhausted. She's still cleaning offices at night. She has tons of homework. School is hard. And she's been thinking that her dream of going to Georgetown University is maybe not so realistic. She heard it's hard to get in. She hadn't thought about that before.

Professor Donahue: Hi, you're my 1:30 right?

Professor Donahue rushes in. She apologizes for being late, then sits down with us at a table in the corner of the English department office.

Donohue: Was it grammar you wanted to talk about?

Sorto: Yeah. It's like you can tell when I write, my writing, you can see all those mistakes…

Katy says she's confused about verb tenses; like the difference between dream and dreamt.

Donahue: You have good oral English that you draw from when you're writing, but then you have the verb mistakes.

Sorto: That's my problem.

Donahue: Now that's your problem.

Sorto: I've got to start from the beginning.

Donahue: Yes!

Katy: Because when I was in high school, I hated when they talked about grammar.

Donohue: So you just tuned it out. But now you have to.

Katy: Now I want to go back and pay attention, but I can't.

Professor Donahue shows Katy how to look up verb tenses. Then they go over a quiz Katy failed, and an essay she wrote. Katy is smiling, grateful. Donahue commends her for coming, tells her to come again.

Sorto: Thank you professor.

Donahue: You're welcome, bye.

Sorto: Bye.

Katy is energized, more awake as we walk out. She checks her phone and finds several messages from her friend Thalia. Then she gets a call from her mother. She needs Katy to do something at the bank, and pick up some tomatoes on the way home.

[Music: Por Amar a Ciegas - Arcangel - El Fenómeno - Más Flow/Machete]

Latino students typically have a lot of family responsibilities. It's one reason so many of them stay at home and go community college. Their families need them. Once when I talk to Katy she's at the dentist with her little brother. Another time she's on the way to her sister's parent-teacher conference. Mario Martinez is also trying to do a lot for his two younger brothers, in part because they don't have a father at home. Mario's dad was killed in a car accident in 2005. Mario says one of the reasons he's going to college is to be a role model for his brothers.

Martinez: I've been tying to help raise them. And I've learned that we can't give advice if we're not doing it ourselves. So the only way I could tell them to keep studying is to - actually get into school - so now, when I get home, I say, "Hey, I'm doing some homework, so you got to start doing your homework as well."

When Mario's not busy with schoolwork he spends a lot of time at his church. Since getting out of jail, Mario's become a practicing Christian. He's taking Bible study classes. And he's organizing a big event with his friends from church. One afternoon I go with Mario to meet his friends while they plan their event.

The meeting is at his friend's house. His mother greets us at the door. We walk through the kitchen. It smells great, the mom is making pupusas, a Salvadoran specialty - and we go to a newly renovated room at the back of the house. Mario's friends are in a band, and this is where they practice. The band's going to play at the event.

The event is for teens. There will be music, dancing and preaching. The purpose is to promote sexual abstinence. Mario has become passionate about this issue. He says among the people he knows, too many guys end up in prison, and too many girls are left with their babies. Mario has written a letter to local pastors, asking them to tell the young people in their churches about his event.

Martinez: Brother pastor, we have noticed that we have - we have noticed that -our youth run a big risk nowadays…

The letter is written in Spanish. Mario is translating as he reads.

Martinez: We can't lose another generation. With the help of our Lord we have programmed an event Oct. 11, 2008 6 p.m. to 10 p.m …

Mario says he's never done anything like this before - organized an event to help people, do something good. He says the way he and his friends from Langley Park grew up, they didn't think they were capable of doing anything good.

Martinez: We always thought that we was going to end up in the street or, we didn't have any goals for life. We didn't think about our future much.

Mario says he doesn't hang around with those friends anymore - because they're all in jail or prison. All of them? I ask. And he says - all of them - and his older brother too. His brother's been in jail for three years, charged in connection with the criminal activities of MS-13 - that's the gang that's everywhere in the neighborhood where Mario grew up.

When band practice is over, I get in the car with Mario. His radio is tuned to a local Christian station. It's the only station he listens to.

Hanford: That was fun.

Martinez: Yeah.

As we drive away, Mario tells me he admires the family of the friend we just visited. He says they've been practicing Christians all their lives. The father's a pastor, and all the kids are in school, doing well, he says.

Martinez: I know it takes a lot of work to, raise a stable family. A lot of children are affected…

Mario says he's been thinking about this a lot lately - and about how important childhood is, how much the way you grow up can affect who you become. Mario says he and his brothers were pretty much on their own when they were kids. His parents were working all the time. He's starting to think he wants some kind of career where he can help people who grew up like he did. He's thinking maybe he wants to be a pastor, or maybe a therapist or a social worker.

[Music: He Reigns - Newsboys - The Worship Collection - Sparrow]

I talked to a lot of young Latinos while making this documentary, and I was struck by how many of them say they want to go to college so they can help people.

Idalia Fernandez: A lot of kids feel and experience a lot of injustice in their community. There's gangs and there's drugs and there's marginalization; there's so many things that they want to change and make it right.

This is Idalia Fernandez. She's president of the Hispanic College Fund. That's the organization that sponsors the youth symposium you heard at the beginning of this program. Fernandez says when she and her colleagues first started working with high school students, trying to motivate them to go to college, they created all kinds of charts and fact sheets to show students how much more money they would make with a college degree. Her colleague George Cushman says that pitch fell kind of flat.

Cushman: We looked at the students and they were looking at each other saying, "how do I explain this to my parents? My house isn't good enough, the car isn't good enough, they're working two jobs, each of them, they're killing themselves, and it isn't good enough?" So we had to completely change. Exactly what Idalia was saying; it's about how do we make ourselves better, how do we make our community better? That's how we convince them.

But convincing them they can go to college is one thing - making sure they succeed when they get there is another. Most young Latinos go to poor public schools where they just don't learn enough to be ready for college, says Northwestern University researcher James Rosenbaum. And he says even many students who go to good public schools aren't prepared. He puts a lot of the blame on high school exit exams.

Rosenbaum: Students pass high school exit exams in many states and three months later they show up at college and they're told, "You're not ready for college level material." Well that's just stupid. We need to give an examination that tells students in high school whether they are ready for college-level material.

And Rosenbaum says high schools have to do a better job helping students understand what classes they need to take and do well in, in order to be ready for college.

Counselor: The question now is where you want to go from here in selecting one or two classes…

It's January of 2009 now. I've come with Mario Martinez to meet with a college counselor. Mario got a B in his English class, and he's here to figure out what he should take next.

Counselor: You can continue your English, or you can start your way up the math ladder.

The counselor says Mario's test scores show that he's ready for college-level math. Mario is shocked. He says the last math class he remembers taking was pre-algebra in 9th grade, and he failed it. Mario tells the counselor he wants to take another English class; he'll think about the math.

Counselor: OK, so good luck to you.

Martinez: Thank you.

Counselor: And If you need anything else you can come back to see us at anytime.

Martinez: OK.

We leave, and Mario tells me he's going to register for his classes later online. I ask why, and he says he needs his mother's credit card. That's how he's been paying for college. It wasn't his plan. He was going to pay for everything himself, plus help his mother with the bills. She cleans houses for a living. But when Mario couldn't find a job last fall, his mother came through for him. She's proud that he's in college.

Martinez: She told me a couple of days ago that was one of her biggest dreams. And, she's excited.

I ask Mario how he feels now that he's finished two classes at Montgomery College. He says he's feeling good. But about halfway through last semester, he realized that the way he's doing school - one class at a time - the two-year degree he came here to get is going to take him much longer. He thinks maybe 5 years here. But he's OK with that. He doesn't think he's ready for more than one class a semester.

Martinez: Because then I'll slack on one class or I won't be able to perform my best. And I want to be able to, every class that I take I want to be able to give it my all. And learn from the class as well. I don't want to just go to class but then at the end of everything have a degree but not learn anything.

And if it takes Mario five years to get an associate's degree, that would not be unusual. The typical community college student has to go to school full time for three-and-a-half years to get a degree. That's an awful lot of time - and money - for a degree that's supposed to be a first step for a lot of students. Katy Sorto has realized what a long haul college is going to be, and she's anxious about it.

Sorto: I don't know, I'm getting worried because I'm like starting from the bottom and I'm like 19 already, and I think that I'm not going finish until I'm like 25, 27 I guess.

Katy's friend Thalia is feeling frustrated too.

Navarrete: You get your hopes up saying wow in two years I'm out, I can move on to another college, but it's all a lie. Yeah.

Hanford: Do you ever get frustrated and feel like you want to give up?

Navarrete: Almost every day. Yeah. I don't know how I am going to do it in the future if it's hard right now, how can I do it later on.

Sorto: You get used to it.

Hanford: What did you say?

Sorto: I said you get used to it.

Hanford: Do you get discouraged and feel like you might not make it?

Sorto: Oh no, I'm OK.

I'm going to make it, she says. But then under her breath she adds - "hopefully."

[Music: Binary Blues - The Years - Years - Arts & Crafts]

Smith: You're listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, "Rising by Degrees." I'm Stephen Smith.

Most community college students don't make it. Surveys show that about half of them drop out before their second year of classes. Some of them come back and give it another shot - but most of them never get a degree.

Coming up:

Kay McClenney: We can't just sit back and say "Oh well they were destined to fail, not our fault."

To read stories about community college students, teachers and administrators, visit our Web site, at There you can download this program and any of our more than 100 other American RadioWorks documentaries. That's all at

Support for this program comes from the Spencer Foundation. American RadioWorks is supported by the Batten Institute. The research center for global entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business.

Rising by Degrees will continue in a moment from American Public Media.

[Music: Pomp and Circumstance]

Smith: Well, as you can tell by the music this is graduation day at Montgomery College, a community college just outside Washington, D.C.

Montgomery College President: Graduates please move the tassel on your mortarboard from right side to left.

You're listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, "Rising by Degrees." I'm Stephen Smith.

College president: Congratulations 2009!

This hour we're following two first-year students at Montgomery College. Their goal is to get here, to graduation, and to be the first in their family to earn a college degree. But for most of the graduates here today - and at community colleges across the country - getting to this day takes a very long time.

Xochitl Gamez: My name is Xochitl Gamez and I just graduated. I got my associate of arts in general studies. It did take me a little bit longer. But I did it.

Gamez says it took her five years to get this degree. She says it's a dream come true for her, and her mother.

Gamez: My mom came here about maybe 35 years ago from Mexico and I'm the first of my family to graduate from college.

Smith: Is your mom still with you?

Gamez: Yes, yes, she is.

Smith: She must be pretty proud today.

Gamez: Yes, she's somewhere in the crowd.

It's a hot May day. The graduates and their families have gathered for photographs outside a big white tent. We find Gamez's mother at the edge of the crowd, standing under the shade of a tree.

Mother: I feel so happy and so proud. Really, I am, very, very much. And I admire her that even though with a husband and a daughter. She really make the effort.

Smith: The first in your family to graduate from college?

Mother: Si, I mean yes! I love you, Xochitl.

Gamez: I love you too mom.

This is the moment that so many people dream about. But most community college students never get to this day.

Kay McClenney: They come to the college very committed and very motivated because they see this as a way to make a change in their lives.

Kay McClenney is director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas. The center conducts an annual survey of community college students across the country. McClenney says it's sometimes heartbreaking to interview students when they start college because…

McClenney: …We know even as we're speaking to them that half of them won't be there by the next fall semester.

McClenney says most students who show up at community college need lots of help. No one in their family's ever been to college. There's a lot they don't know - from filling out the forms to finding the tutoring center.

McClenney: We can't just sit back and say, "Oh well they were destined to fail, not our fault."

And the reason we can't do that is the students who are failing in community college are the future workforce. U.S. employers say they need more educated workers. So it's crucial that Americans get degrees. Young Latinos in particular need to increase their graduation rates because they are the fastest growing segment of the United States population - and they are among the least likely to finish college.

That's why we're spending the hour following two Latino students at Montgomery College, a community college outside of Washington, D.C. When we left off before the break they had just finished their fall semester. American RadioWorks Producer Emily Hanford picks up their stories.

Professor: So let's start by checking the homework.

Hanford: It's spring semester 2009, and Katy Sorto is in another "learning community" class that combines two courses in one: writing and reading. Many of the students from her class last semester are here. You can tell they know each other well. There's lots of laughter and friendly chatter.

Professor: OK, this word is pronounced alternate. Can you say it with me?

Class: Alternate.

Professor: How would you clap it?

Class: Alternate [clapping].

Katy says she's learning a lot in this class. Her English skills are getting much better, she's learning more than she ever did in high school - but she thinks she'll always feel more comfortable in Spanish. She actually wrote about this for homework, and the professor picks her to read aloud from her essay.

Sorto: Every time I call the bank or any other company who have the option to choose between English or Spanish, I always choose Spanish.

Katy goes on to say that she always listens to Spanish radio stations and watches Spanish TV. But she also writes that English is important to her because it's part of what makes her an American. "Also," she writes, "I have to learn the language so I can survive."

Sorto: Bye people. Enjoy your weekend!

Katy says she really like the students in this class. They support each other, study together sometimes. And that's exactly the point. Kay McClenney at the University of Texas says setting up learning community classes like this is one of the things community colleges can do to hold on to their students.

McClenney: We have students that testify that they didn't drop out of college because the colleagues in their learning community wouldn't let them.

McClenney says community colleges should be doing everything they can to help students build relationships. Make it mandatory for everyone to meet with an advisor, for example. Students who make it almost always say it's because they had a relationship with someone at the college. McClenney says something else that helps keep students in school is getting involved in campus activities - clubs, sports, the kinds of things that students at private colleges and universities do.

Sorto: He's in charge of the snack now!

Katy's gotten involved with the Latino Student Union at Montgomery College. That's how she found out about this volunteer program. One afternoon a week she works with elementary school kids at a local community center. When we arrive, the other volunteers are setting up. Katy strikes up a conversation with one of them - a high school student.

Sorto: You better enjoy your days in high school because after you get it out girl, nothing is free…

Katy advises the high school student to party now while she still can. The girl looks at her funny, says she has no time to party; she's all stressed out about getting good grades so she can get in to college. Katy dismisses her.

Sorto: I mean it's better to get serious in college than in high school because high school - hey…

It's kind of a shocking comment. Right now Katy's paying a high price for failing to learn what she should have in high school. She freely admits she didn't work hard enough, could have done better. And statistically speaking, the fact that she didn't do well in high school puts her at great risk of never finishing college. Sociologist James Rosenbaum at Northwestern University says high school grade point average is the single most reliable predictor of a student's chances of making it to graduation.

Rosenbaum: Students with a C average or less have an 80 percent chance of failing to get any degree at all.

One way to look at this finding is to say, well, those students aren't cut out for college. But Rosenbaum says that's the wrong way to view it. He thinks the problem begins in high school where lots of students get bad grades because they don't make much effort.

Rosenbaum: They're not trying, they don't see any reason to try. No one's ever given them a clear reason why they should exert effort in school. And indeed the opposite. We tell students if you can squeak by we'll promote you to the next grade. If you can squeak by, we'll send you to college even.

It's the irony of the "college for all" attitude that most high schools now promote. Anyone, everyone can go to college. But if everyone can go, and there are community colleges that will take you no matter what your grades or test scores - then why work hard in high school? Exactly Katy's point.

Sorto: Hi Vanessa!

The kids arrive at the community center just after school lets out. Vanessa is the student Katy's been working with. She's a second grader. Katy warns me that Vanessa is shy, she probably won't say anything.

Sorto: You want to read the story Vanessa? You can do it!

Katy's trying to get Vanessa to read a book that they wrote together. But Vanessa looks at me, and my microphone, and shakes her head no. So Katy reads.

Sorto: "After a long day at school a little girl named Lola went home very tired. She quickly fell asleep and began to dream that she was at the zoo."

At the zoo, Lola meets a monkey from Madagascar, a parrot from Panama and a bilingual giraffe.

Sorto: "She almost fell over in surprise when the giraffe say, 'Gracias.' "

Katy's wonderful with Vanessa. She leans in as she reads, encouraging, smiling a lot. Katy says she wants to become a guidance counselor, wants to work with students whose first language is not English. Students like Vanessa, like herself. The very first time I met Katy she told me this. She knows she won't make a lot of money, won't live quite like the lawyers she envies, but she thinks she'll make enough. And like so many Latino college students, Katy says she wants to give back to her community. But to become a guidance counselor Katy will probably have to get a master's degree - she knows that - and Katy's still struggling with English. That's clear as she reads the story.

Sorto: "She and Harry heard ji - jiggling?"

Hanford: Giggling.

Sorto: "Giggling, from up in the tree, and saw a…"

The story goes on. And when Lola finally wakes up from her nap, she tells her mother about the dream. And the next Saturday, Lola's mother takes her to the zoo for the first time in her life. Listening to Katy read the story, it's hard not to think it says something about what she wants - new experiences, and a rest from all the long, tiring days of school.

[Music: Basement interlude - Oh No - Exodus Into Unheard Rhythms - Stones Throw Records]

The next time I see Mario Martinez it's June. He took an English class in the spring semester and got a B. Now, it's summer session, and he's decided to tackle math. I meet up with him one morning outside the campus center.

Hanford: How's it going?

Martinez: It's going bad. This class, I'm behind.

It's a little after 9 o'clock. The class started at 8. Mario overslept. As we hurry across campus, he tells me he's really tired. He found a job - it's full time, with a salary and benefits. He's an outreach worker at a youth center in Langley Park, where he grew up. He's working with teens coming out of juvenile detention, trying to keep them out of gangs. Last night the youth center had a celebration for them - a kind of graduation ceremony because so many never make it to their high school graduation.

Mario: I'm going to sit all the way in the back today.

When we arrive at Mario's math class, the students are taking a test. Mario gets his and sits down. I look around the room. There's a poster on the wall with Murphy's Law number 19 on it. "If there is a 50 percent chance of success," it says, "that means there is a 75 percent chance of failure." It seems like an odd poster to display here. Math is what messes a lot of community college students up - many can't get through their required math courses, and they drop out.

Martinez: When he teaches it, I get it. But when it's time to do it, I go blank.

Mario just handed in his test. He's pretty sure he failed it. He says he's thinking about dropping this class, taking it again in the next summer session that starts in a few weeks.

Martinez: And I'm thinking if the same thing happens and I fall back, then I'll try to do it again in the fall, until I pass it.

Passing this class is what he has to do. He says he'll do it. I ask him where he gets his attitude of persistence and he says: his father.

Martinez: He was a fighter. He wouldn't give up on something.

I'm surprised to hear him mention his dad. He hasn't talked about him much.

Martinez: He was a construction worker. He would get sick. He would go to the hospital. He would come out of the hospital like a two in the morning and have to leave for work at 4:30 in the morning. He would put food on the table. He was the one that brought his whole family to the United States.

Mario says his dad came to this country illegally. He was in jail for a while, he was an alcoholic. But Mario says he quit drinking, quit smoking, turned his life around.

Martinez: And because he didn't have the papers, he didn't do the whole school thing. But I know if he had opportunity, he would have tooken it.

Hanford: Really, you think he would've gone to college if he could've done it? Martinez: If he could've done it he would've done it. I think so. I mean, he did a lot.

Mario says he feels a certain responsibility to get his degree - because his father couldn't, and because he has friends who are here illegally - they can't go to college either. But Mario says there's much more than this responsibility keeping him going. He really likes school.

Martinez: There's no reason why I should stop, why to start something and leave it halfway.

Dropping out is just not an option. Katy Sorto and her friend Thalia Navarrete say dropping out's not an option for them either. They look around at what a lot of their friends and cousins are doing: having babies, living in tiny apartments, working at fast food restaurants and dollar stores. Going to college is Katy and Thalia's way to not live that life.

Navarrete: Cause either you go to college and you do something or you stay home and you help your mom and then until you like, your mom tells you "OK you got to leave" and then you have to go find a man and stay in like a little room, like a basement, and have their baby and then, yeah.

Sorto: That's all your life.

Navarrete: That's your life. We don't want that for us, we want something better. Even though people, like, may say we're not going to make it and all this stuff. But, we try.

Hanford: Who says that to you, "oh you're not going to make it?"

Sorto, Navarrete: Family, friends.

Sorto: Everybody.

Navarrete: Yeah.

Thalia and Katy both say they're going to prove everybody wrong. But at the end of their first year of college, neither of them has any college credits in English or math classes that will count towards a degree. And they're both stressed about money. Thalia's parents are paying full tuition. She didn't even apply for financial aid. Katy does have aid, she figured out the paperwork problem last semester, but she's nervous about getting another big bill someday. She says her mom has offered to help with tuition if it ever comes to that - but her dad, she doesn't even mention money with him. When she first started college he told her flat out he didn't think she would make it. I ask her if that's changed.

Sorto: I don't know. I don't talk to him that much and I haven't touched that topic.

I turn to Thalia:

Hanford: Do you know her parents?

Navarrete: Yeah…I think he's proud of you, he just doesn't say it and I bet when you get your diploma, he's going to cry. He's going to be like, "Oh!"

Sorto: I don't know.

Katy shrugs and says, "It's going to be a long time for that."

[Music: Youthless - Beck - Modern Guilt - DGC/Interscope]

I'm wondering about Mario Martinez. I want to find out what happened with his math class, see how his job is going, and meet his younger brothers. I've been asking him all year if I can meet them and he always says he's too busy, he barely sees them. But finally, in late September, he invites me to his house.

Hanford: Hey Mario, how are you?

Martinez: Fine. And you?

Hanford: I'm good, thanks.

Mario lives with his mother and two younger brothers in a middle-class neighborhood in Silver Spring, Md. His father had a small life insurance policy, and after he died his mother spent it on this house. It's a single story brick ranch on a quiet street. Mario says being here, away from the violence and chaos of Langley Park, has made a huge difference for him. He says if he stayed in Langley Park after getting out of jail, he's sure he'd be in prison.

Hanford: So what's, like what's going on in your life right now?

Martinez: A lot, a lot.

Mario tells me he failed his math class. And decided to withdraw from Montgomery College. But, he's figured out what he wants to do with his life - he wants to be a Christian counselor.

Martinez: There's this program that comes on the FM radio, 105.1. And at 1 p.m. they have one hour of Christian counseling and people call and they present real situations. And I was just thinking how the Latino culture - they enter into problems but they don't know the solution so they just find themselves stuck. And I was just thinking that this is something that I really think we need. And it just came to my mind one day; if this is something we need, why not do it?

So he's doing it. He transferred all his credits from Montgomery College to Liberty University, a Christian school in Virginia. They offer an undergraduate degree in Christian counseling. He got a financial aid package, and his plan is to get a bachelor's degree, then a master's in marriage and family therapy, and a Ph.D. in Christian Psychology. He's already started researching Ph.D. programs, and even called a Christian counseling center near his house. They told him they've never had a Spanish-speaking counselor, and they really need one. It's a pretty incredible transformation. Just over a year ago, Mario was taking a remedial writing class and had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. Now, he has this clear and ambitious plan for the future. I ask him how he did it.

Martinez: I mean I've thought about it, I've been praying about it as well. And it's something that I, I feel that, that God has put in my heart.

This is something he told me before; that God is responsible for the way his life has changed. I told him I didn't think he was giving himself enough credit.

Martinez: I don't give myself credit because I was personally destroying my life. And, once I started going to church; I didn't want to hurt nobody, I didn't want to be violent, I didn't want to use drugs. I didn't understand it either. I didn't know why. It's like out of nowhere somebody just grabbed me and started making me walk another way.

Mario's older brother and all of the friends he grew up with are in jail or in prison. And he got out. He was set free. And here he is, living in a middle-class neighborhood, going to college, thinking about getting a Ph.D. He says the only explanation is God.

Hanford: So, do you think we can get your brothers to come out?

Martinez: I guess.

Mario's brothers have been hiding in their room. Mario says they're shy, not sure they want to meet me. But Mario coaxes them out. Together they shuffle over to the edge of the couch, as far from me as possible.

Hanford: I'm Emily.

Geovanni Martinez: My name's Geovanni.

Hanford: Say it again?

Geovanni Marinez: Geovanni

Manuel Martinez: I'm Manuel.

Hanford: Manuel, how are you?

Manuel is 12. He's in eighth grade. Geovanni is 13. He's a freshman in high school.

Hanford: So I've been interviewing your brother for like a year - more. And he's changed a lot, it seems to me. How do you think he's changed?

Geovanni Martinez: A lot.

Hanford: Alright, but how?

Geovanni Martinez: He was meaner.

But Geovanni says now he's nice.

Geovanni Martinez: Well I guess he's trying to help us build our own path like to a better life than what he had.

Hanford: What do you think Manuel?

Manuel Martinez: I guess now, like he as a better character. He's a lot more better now.

Manuel and Geovanni were in elementary school when their brothers went to jail, their father died, and their mother moved them out of Langley Park. Manuel says when all that happened, he started doing badly in school - though he says he's doing better now. Geovanni says it motivated him to try harder.

Geovanni Martinez: I see Mario, how he did bad back then, and now he's trying to regain his life. And I don't want to go through that so I'm going to try to make sure I don't go through that and if I have a family then I will make sure that they also have a good life, better than Mario and Carlos and our old life.

Hanford: Carlos - is that your older brother?

Mario Martinez: Uh-huh.

Carlos is 21, a year older than Mario. Last spring, he pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges for participating in the criminal activities of the gang MS-13. Mario says he's going to be sentenced on Friday - two days from today.

Mario Martinez: The way it looks right now it's probably like eight to 12 years.

Hanford: Do you get to see him?

Martinez: I've seen him, I do get to see him. And he's there, he's just waiting.

Hanford: Does he know what's going on in your life?

Martinez: Yeah.

Hanford: And what does he say?

Martinez: He's proud of me … It's something that none of us really expect out of that lifestyle. And I'm always thinking when he comes out, hopefully, once I have some degrees, I'll be able to help him out, have some money on the side, and help give him a jump start.

In a couple of weeks, Mario is going to turn 21. Last year some of his friends from church surprised him with a cake. He says in the past, when he celebrated birthdays with friends, it was all about getting wasted, partying too hard. He says it was really nice to get a cake.

[Music: Bar Infierno - Nortec Collective - Tijuana Sessions Vol. 3 - Nacional Records]

Smith: Mario Martinez appears to be well on his way to a college degree. Research shows that most community college students make it if they can accomplish three things: if they figure out what they want to major in, if they pass all of the remedial classes they need to take, and if they successfully complete at least one semester worth of courses. Mario's made it across all of these goal lines.

Katy Sorto has not. She still has three more English as a second language classes to complete before she can begin taking college-level English. And she has math to worry about too. She says she was a terrible math student in high school. She is so scared about math that she hasn't even talked with anyone at the college about it yet.

Katy faces what experts tell us are some of the main risk factors for failing. She didn't do well in high school. She has to work to pay her tuition. And since she's the first in her family to go to college, she doesn't have any relatives with experience of college helping her figure out what to do.

But Katy has a lot going for her too. She's a full-time student, and research shows that full-time students do better. She's gotten to know many of her classmates, and she's developed relationships with her professors. She's passed all of her classes, and she's well into her second year of college; about half of students who drop out do so during the first year. So Katy has made it past one of the biggest hurdles. And while it may take her a long time to get there, Katy has a chance for the future that she wants - and her job as a guidance counselor helping other kids do better than she did.

[Music: ARW Theme Music]

You've been listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, "Rising by Degrees." It was produced by Emily Hanford and edited by Catherine Winter. The American RadioWorks team includes Ellen Guettler, Ochen Kaylan, Frankie Barnhill, Craig Thorson and Judy McAlpine. Special thanks to Nancy Rosenbaum, Suzanne Pekow and Marc Sanchez. I'm Stephen Smith.

We've posted a wealth of information on our Web site about Latinos and higher education. To find it, go to While you're there, you can also check out our other education-related documentaries, on preschool, school desegregation and even college gambling. That and much more at

Support for this program comes from the Spencer Foundation.

American RadioWorks is supported by the Batten Institute. The research center for global entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business.

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