A few days before Florida's Republican primary, former Gov. Jeb Bush wrote a column suggesting ways the GOP could win the Hispanic vote in November as it seeks to control both houses of Congress and take back the White House.
Bush asked Republicans to "echo the aspirations" of Hispanics. One way to do that, Bush wrote, is to "press for an overhaul of our education system." His fellow Republicans on the Florida Senate Committee on Higher Education in Tallahassee apparently were not listening.
The committee, as mean-spirited and myopic as ever, killed a bill that would have given in-state tuition eligibility to U.S.-born students who live in Florida for two years — regardless of their parents' immigration status. These students are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.
As the law stands, those registering for college as dependents are required to submit tax and residency documentation for their parents in order to qualify for the lower in-state tuition rate. Children of undocumented immigrants must pay out-of-state tuition that is three to four times that of in-state tuition. This high cost makes college unaffordable for many otherwise qualified young people.
Passage of the legislation, which is now dead, would have echoed "the aspirations" of thousands of Hispanic students.
Here is my advice to Bush and other Republicans if they want to go beyond their cynical goal of winning the Latino vote and if they are serious about substantively doing the right thing by members of America's largest and fastest-growing minority: They should visit Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Ga.
During the last decade, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Armstrong, with 7,600 students, has increased its Hispanic enrollment by nearly 200 percent, to more than 430 students. This number might be dismissed as small by large universities, but it is huge when considering that Armstrong, part of the University System of Georgia, had hardly any Latino students before 2001.
By aggressively recruiting Latino students, the school is bucking state lawmakers' anti-immigrant campaign. The willingness to challenge the status quo can be found in the university's avowed commitment to "value and respect diversity."
Administrators do more than recruit. They retain and graduate these students. They hired an Armstrong alumna, a Venezuelan immigrant, to direct an outreach and leadership effort that has created a welcoming and supportive environment. Recruiters, loaded with bilingual literature about the university, fan out to job fairs, other colleges and high schools.
Keenly aware that the family is treasured in Hispanic culture, Armstrong holds orientations and open houses focused on parents. "We know that when we are recruiting Latinos, we are not just looking at a potential new student but a potential new family," said Marcia Nance, interim assistant vice president for enrollment services.
Well-planned extracurricular activities and organizations have connected Hispanic students to the fabric of the campus. A scholarship program, for example, was established that is open to all Hispanics, including those who are not citizens or legal permanent residents. Grants from the Lumina Foundation for Education and the Goizueta Foundation help underwrite the scholarships. These funds also ease the high cost of Georgia's out-of-state tuition for students whose parents are not citizens or permanent legal residents.
This investment is paying off. Forty percent of Latino students graduate within six years, while 29 percent of their non-Latino schoolmates take longer.
"Our Latino students are high performing," Armstrong president Linda Bleicken told the Chronicle. "Many of them have gone on to create futures they never expected to have. But they are not doing it on their own. We have a model here that is working."
Bush and his fellow Republicans — who want to "echo the aspirations" of Hispanics — should drop the cliches and campaign rhetoric and visit Armstrong Atlantic State University. They will witness a working model of genuine respect and caring.