Can We Do More?

As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month this fall, we look to the history, culture and contributions of Hispanic Americans in the United States.  We also should celebrate the achievements of Latinos in our classrooms, and ask ourselves: What more can we do to ensure that all Hispanics have the benefits that a good education brings?

Certainly we are making progress.  According to a 2013 report from the Pew Research Center, Hispanics are heading off to college in record numbers, and the percentage of Hispanic high-school dropouts has declined dramatically.

But there is still much more work to do.  Even though more young Latino students are entering college, they are less likely than their counterparts in other demographic groups to enroll in a four-year college, less likely to attend a selective college, less likely to be enrolled in college full time, and less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree.  Only 14 percent of Hispanic 25- to 29-year-olds have earned a bachelor’s degree, compared with 19 percent of African-Americans, 39 percent of non-Hispanic whites, and 53 percent of Asian-Americans.

We need to close this gap – and all the other achievement gaps – that exist throughout American education.  Earning a college degree is the single most important factor influencing economic opportunity and social mobility for our young people.  Education also is important to the future direction of the nation’s economy.  The jobs of the future – many of which are in fields related to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) – will require a better educated workforce.  We need more college graduates to fill those roles.

When we look at the pipeline of college graduates who are qualified to pursue the STEM jobs of the future, we see critical gaps in STEM achievement among three groups: low-income students, minorities and female students.  Women and minority groups represent roughly 70% of American college students, yet represent only 45% of undergraduate STEM degree holders.

If we’re to change this dynamic, interest in STEM must begin at an early age, well before the time when students head to college and declare a major.  Why aren’t we seeing this interest among a broader base of students?  For starters, we know that some low-income children may not have the type of enrichment at home that others do.  And we know that minorities and female students may not be encouraged to pursue STEM fields at all, perhaps because it is automatically assumed they will not succeed.  Instead, we need to encourage all students to consider STEM as a viable career path.  And we need to make sure they are prepared to succeed in college when they get there.

Through our work at the National Math + Science Initiative, we know that exposure to rigorous coursework in high school is one of the best indicators of whether students are prepared for college-level work.  Students who master advanced-level courses are three times more likely to graduate from college.  For minority students, that multiplier is even greater.  Hispanic students, for example, who succeed in rigorous, college-level classes are four times more likely to graduate from college.

Our schools and teachers must be more inclusive in terms of which students are encouraged to pursue rigorous coursework in high school and careers in STEM fields later on.  And we need to raise standards across the board to build a college-ready culture in all schools.  NMSI is spearheading this movement in 560 schools in 22 states today, by fostering student interest in math and science, and by improving how STEM subjects are taught in the classroom.

We can see the results of this approach in test scores and in college graduation rates.  Latino students who participate in the NMSI College Readiness Program at their high schools experience, on average, a 93% increase in passing college-level math, science and English test scores after just one year.  The percentage increase jumps to 235% after three years.  Beyond that, students at NMSI schools are more likely to attend college and earn their degrees.  For example, Hispanic students are 83% more likely to graduate from a four-year college than Hispanic students not in the program.

With these efforts, we are opening doors to college success for under-served student populations who have not had the encouragement to tackle challenging coursework in math, science and English until now.

At end of the day, I hope we’ll see more student success stories like Carlos Sotelo from Sam Rayburn High School in Pasadena, Texas.  Carlos came to the United States from Mexico with his non-English speaking parents as a young child.  In the 2011-2012 school year at Sam Rayburn, Carlos took four advanced college-level courses and passed all four exams.  He maintained a 5.36 GPA as Class Salutatorian and was accepted to Princeton University.  In his first semester at Princeton, he maintained a 3.5 GPA with a major in public policy.  Today he says that the college-readiness program support he received in high school helped encourage his aspirations to achieve higher academic goals.

 Carlos’ story shows what can happen when we don’t second-guess our children’s potential.

 Sara Martinez Tucker is CEO of the National Math + Science Initiative.  She is the former Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, and the former CEO and President of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund.