The Urgency of Latino Education Attainment

Reflecting on the 2010 Census results and the dramatic increase in the U.S. Latino community, I ask myself how we once again find ourselves in the same predicament as ten years ago, with little progress on the overall state of Latino education and no national sense of urgency to fix it when it has significant implications for our nation’s future workforce and economic strength.

Even though the last Census correctly predicted Latino growth of more than 50 percent and Latino leaders have worked very hard to improve education for Latinos, we continue to have an education crisis in the Latino community. Despite compelling and substantive books being published making the case that the future success of America is tied to the nation’s fastest growing demographic, such as Latinos and the Nation’s Future, edited by Henry Cisneros, the economic well-being of Latinos continues to suffer and we have major underrepresentation of Latinos in all sectors, especially at senior levels.

2010 Census numbers and subsequent reports from key agencies quantitatively affirmed the dramatic growth in the Latino population. Hispanic growth accounted for more than half of the nation’s growth in the past decade and the Hispanic population now totals 50.5 million, or 16.3 percent of the U.S. population. Hispanic youth account for 23 percent of the nation’s youth under 18 and that population is growing at a much faster rate than other demographics, increasing by 39 percent over the past decade. Hispanics currently make up 15 percent of U.S. workers and are expected to comprise half of all new entrants into the labor market by 2025. The Hispanic market made up more than 50 percent of real growth in the U.S. consumer economy from 2005 to 2008, with $52 billion in new inflation-adjusted Hispanic spending, outpacing $40 billion in new spending by non-Hispanics.

These impressive numbers are alarming when we consider the implications for Latino education attainment and the future workforce and economic health of the U.S. Employed Hispanics are much less likely to have a college degree than are either whites or blacks. Approximately one in six employed Hispanics aged 25 and over have completed a bachelor’s degree, less than half the proportion among employed whites; and the share of Latinos with college degrees versus whites has widened over the past decade. Nine in ten Latino children in America are native born, reinforcing the fact that Latinos are a core part of this nation’s future.

In today’s American public education system, Latinos are by far the largest minority group, numbering more than 12.4 million in the county’s elementary, middle, and high schools. Currently, nearly 22 percent, or slightly more than 1 in 5, of all pre-K-12 students enrolled in America’s public schools is Latino. What can we do today to so we don’t find ourselves again unprepared to lead ten years from now?

First, heading into the next decade, we cannot simply depict Latinos as being one in six Americans. Rather, we must emphasize that Latinos already make up the future of our nation, as already one in four Americans are under the age of 18.

Second, given that Latinos are the fastest growing segment of consumers, employees, and the country’s tax base, more significant and focused investments are needed by all sectors including the philanthropic community. Without significant change in high school completion and college attainment rates, the country faces a shortage of 23 million college-educated adults in the workforce in the next 15 years---a crippling blow to U.S. economic competitiveness.

Third, the focus must also move away from sheer population numbers and turn to how those numbers will impact the economic future of the nation and the implications for the future tax base and the solvency of Social Security and Medicare.

The spotlight must shine on the importance of increasing Latino educational attainment and the critical role the Hispanic community will play in the future U.S. workforce. We all have a vested interest in achieving President Obama’s goal of 60 percent college attainment rate by 2025. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI) is fully engaged in this effort and launched a national dialogue caled Partnerships for Latino Education Success on April 8, 2011 in Los Angeles to examine the unique education challenges facing young Latinos, define the barriers to higher education attainment, and identify best practices for addressing these to help reach the 60 percent goal by 2025. This discussion was in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, California State University-Dominguez Hills, Excelencia in Education, the Lumina Foundation, NALEO, and Univision. CHCI will continue this dialogue with sessions in Washington, D.C. as part of its public policy conference in September, and in New York City later this year.

Success means that all of us understand the imperative and invests in the country’s future. From leading non-profits and foundations to the federal government, to think tanks and school boards, to teachers and parents, to employers large and small in all sectors---everyone must be invested and not only grasp the urgency of this issue, but take bold actions today to stall if not avert the future collapse of the U.S. workforce and our global competitiveness.

Esther Aguilera is President & CEO of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI), the nation’s premier Hispanic youth leadership development and educational organization.