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By Joslin Woods/MEDILL

La Casa, at six stories and 33,000 square feet, will open its doors to college students in August. The building will house 100 undergraduate students and five graduate students, who will serve as mentors.

Chicago’s college-bound Latino youth getting a new housing option

by Joslin Woods
Feb 01, 2012


La Casa is still under construction at the corner of 18th and Paulina streets in Pilsen's 18th Street commercial corridor.

Concerned that youth from Chicago’s predominantly Latino neighborhoods are struggling to earn college degrees, a Pilsen community group is building a student residence hall that experts say will help close gaps in college success.

La Casa, which means the house in Spanish, will accommodate 100 students attending Chicago area colleges this fall by providing affordable apartments and academic services in a building at the intersection of 18th and Paulina streets.

“If you provide affordable housing with conducive learning environments and wrap around support services, you dramatically increase the likelihood of college success,” said Julio Guerrero, vice president of marketing and resource development for the Resurrection Project, the leading force behind the student housing initiative.

When La Casa opens its doors in August, it will be the first community-based student housing development in the nation, Guerrero said.

Guerrero said the idea for La Casa came from discussions among community leaders who faced hardships after being the first in their families to enroll in a college program, a challenge faced by youth in the Resurrection Project’s target neighborhoods of Pilsen, Little Village, Back of the Yards and Melrose Park.

“For the very few that get into college, the chance of success is relatively small,” Guerrero said.

Richard Fry, senior research associate at the Pew Hispanic Center, a project within the Pew Research Center, said that nationally about 70 percent of Latino high-school graduates come from homes with immigrant parents who don’t know how the U.S. college system works.

“College-going can get really complicated. There are a lot of different pieces to it,” Fry said.

Guerrero said applications for the student residence will be available to all college and college-bound students in the city, but that the building is meant to be more than lodging.

“It means participating in a community,” he said.

La Casa, which Guerrero expects to be completely filled by its fall start date, will cater to students who live in overcrowded homes that make it difficult to focus on schoolwork.

“If you are trying to study and have the TV on in the other room with your five brothers and sisters and your parents and everything else going on, it is not the most conducive learning environment that someone living on campus would have,” Guerrero said.

While Latinos nationally have lagged behind whites and other minority groups in college enrollment, there was a 24 percent increase in the number of Hispanics at American colleges from 2009 to 2010, according to a study from the Pew Hispanic Center that focused on the 18-to-24-year-old age bracket.

According to the study, college-aged Latinos made up 15 percent of all 18-to-24-year-olds at American colleges, a record to date.

“It is more than just growth,” Fry, who authored the study, said. “There are more young Hispanics, but more young Hispanics are finishing high school.”

While college-aged Latinos now represent the largest minority group at community and two-year colleges as of October 2010, they still fall behind other groups when it comes to four-year colleges.

One million college-aged Latinos were enrolled at a four-year university in 2010, just behind 1.1 million African-Americans, according to the Pew study. White students came in at 5.6 million.

But college completion, not enrollment, is now the bigger problem facing Latino populations, said Deborah Santiago, vice president for policy and research at Excelencia in Education, which provides data on Latino education.

Latinos earn just 9 to 10 percent of bachelor’s degrees annually, Santiago said.

Guerrero said these national statistics mirror what the Resurrection Project has found in their own largely Latino communities.

“We are, population-wise, becoming a greater part of the metropolitan Chicago area as well as the national population,” Guerrero said. “We need to make sure we are prepared to compete economically with everyone else, and education is a big part of that.”

Guerrero said pricing for La Casa has not yet been determined, but will be less than on-campus housing at local colleges and private, off-campus apartments. The $11.6 million project is being built with a mix of federal, corporate and private foundation funding.

For Santiago, La Casa’s ability to address the financial burden that comes into play when college students seek housing is essential.

“Where are you going to get your next meal and where are you going to stay? Those economic factors feed into issues of completion and retention,” she said.

The Resurrection Project will begin informing its primary target, residents of Pilsen and the surrounding neighborhoods, about La Casa in the coming weeks, and pre-applications will soon be available on the organization’s website.