- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 29, 2016

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Facing a growing Latino student population and pressure to increase its graduation rates, the University of New Mexico is launching an online degree program in Chicana and Chicano Studies beginning this fall just as ethnic studies programs are facing challenges in neighboring Arizona.

Officials say the online classes will allow nontraditional students with busy schedules to get a bachelor’s degree in Chicano studies. The new program covers the history, sociology and literature of Mexican Americans and is aimed at students who already have 24 hours of college credit.

The move comes a year after Chicana and Chicano Studies became an official department at the school and amid pressure from New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez to get state colleges to cut the number of hours needed to earn a degree.

Director Irene Vasquez said the department wants to keep classes small and intends on monitoring students closely so they can complete the program. “We are getting interest from folks in their late 30s and early 40s who maybe have a year left but were never able to finish their degrees,” Vasquez said.

Around 46 percent of the university’s student body is Latino. Officials say they hope to develop a Chicano studies graduate program.

The University of New Mexico’s new program is part of a nationwide movement to have education include minority students more and to expand ethnic studies at colleges and in high schools.

Albuquerque Public Schools, for example, recently announced that juniors and seniors at any of Albuquerque’s public high schools will be able to take ethnic studies courses starting in 2017.

In 2014 Los Angeles Unified announced it would require students to take ethnic studies classes as part of an effort to promote stronger cultural understanding within the nation’s second-largest school district.

Officials there say the rules were aimed at pushing students to achieve through the exploration of different perspectives in literature, history and social justice. LA Unified students are largely Latino, but more than 90 languages are spoken within the district.

San Francisco also recently voted to expand ethnic studies to its high schools.

It also comes as schools in Tucson, Arizona, are fighting state regulators to reinstate a Mexican-American Studies program. Arizona lawmakers banned teaching ethnic studies in 2010, and the case has been playing out in the courts since.

Jose Angel Hernandez, a University of Houston history professor and incoming chair of the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies, said Mexican-American studies still is a generally young field and has evolved within a generation to meet the needs of students.

“The degree is multidisciplinary and, in many ways, is no different than a Liberal Arts degree,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez said many graduates with Chicano Studies degrees are being hired as teachers by middle and high schools because there is a demand for educators trained in various ethnic studies fields.

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Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/russell-contreras .

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