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In the U.S. today, 32% of the population has attained at least a bachelor’s degree. If you are white, your cohort bumps to 33.5%. Bachelor’s degrees are important to both individuals and society. Compared with non-college graduates, individuals who hold a bachelor’s degree have higher lifetime earnings, lower odds of unemployment and better health outcomes. It is one of the most effective tools to combat poverty and to improve the living standards of a population. So, if I am asked whether I hope for the Latino population’s educational attainment to be on par with our white counterparts, my response is a resounding “heck yeah!” Closing the disparity between the proportion of whites and Latinos with a college degree (20% points) would mean an additional 15,000 Hispanic college graduates in Milwaukee County alone. It would also mean that Milwaukee would lead the nation for the highest percentage of college-educated Latinos. This is a laudable Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal that I’m hoping doesn’t take a quarter-century to attain. We just don’t have that kind of time.
While enrollment has been declining at colleges and universities across the nation, Hispanic college enrollment bucks the trend. From 2000 to 2018, overall college enrollment numbers dropped by 1.5 million students (-8%). During this same time, Hispanic enrollment in college increased by 800,000 students. By far the fastest-growing group of college-age people is Hispanic. But while there is an increase in the number of Hispanics going to college, it is still not on pace to close the disparity gap. Hispanics are more likely to go to community college and not four-year universities, less likely to go to the most prestigious institutions, and less likely to attend full time because of financial need, according to the Pew Research Center. Only about 50% of Latinos who pursue bachelor’s degrees earn them within six years, compared to 62% of whites. This disparity is largely the result of financial hardship, challenges of being a first-generation college student and in some cases language barriers and legal status. Latinos are much more likely to be first-generation college students (50%) than their white counterparts (20%) and more than half come from homes with less than $40,000 in household income. Cash-strapped universities and colleges don’t have the huge amounts of additional financial aid needed to support the number of Latinos currently knocking on the door, much less as those numbers continue to become a bigger piece of the college enrollment pie.
What is the cost to us if we don’t invest in these kids and close the college disparity for Latinos? Steve Murdock, former head of the U.S. Census Bureau and researcher with Rice University, warns that if we don’t change the number of Latinos with university degrees, we risk having too many people in lower-paying jobs unable to fill the high-salary positions of retiring boomers. This would mean less innovation, less consumer spending, more poverty, decreasing tax revenue and a potential decrease to the annual household incomes for all Americans by 5% by 2060. He also shares what happens if we can close the gap between the proportion of whites and Latinos with a college degree. Murdock believes median household income would go up by $20,000 in the U.S., and per capita income would go up by $15,000 due primarily to an increase in consumer spending.
Jeff Strohl, researcher for Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce, believes the needle isn’t moving fast enough even though it is headed in the right direction. Previous immigrant groups traditionally lived in the United States for a first and second generation before the third began to go to college. But the number of Hispanics is so large, and the gap so big, he states, “We can’t really wait for the third generation. We need this to happen in the second generation.” That means now.
The Hispanic college achievement gap that exists today is real and has wide economic repercussions for us all. Every parent knows that the time between the first day of kindergarten and high school graduation goes at lightning speed. Graduation day is upon us and we find ourselves without a properly invested college savings plan, Milwaukee. If there was ever an issue that we could throw money at and actually get great results, this one is it. Hispanics are currently 25% of our K-12 universe. Soon enough, Hispanics students will be close to 40% of the K-12 pipeline. The question for us is: Are they college bound?This column is part of “25 big ideas for Milwaukee and southeastern Wisconsin’s future,” a feature included in the BizTimes Milwaukee 25th anniversary issue. To read other contributions, visit biztimes.com/bigideas