Latinos are now the largest ethnic group in California and will continue growing. Half of all children under 18 in California are Latino.
The demographic change impacts just about every aspect of our society, none more critically than our economy. With this young and growing population, California has a consumer market and workforce rivaled only by entire nations.
The future of California’s economy will be determined by how well we educate our Latino population and develop our workforce. It’s not just a matter of preparing our workforce. We are also concerned about creating a two-tier economy, or a two-class California that will threaten our prosperity.
But there is a growing body of data that indicates we are leaving behind a great portion of our student population. These concerns have been growing for some time, but we now know more about the extent of this ethnic gap in educational accomplishment.
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A new report by the Campaign for College Opportunity found that Latinos in California are less likely to have a college degree and lag far behind other ethnic groups in college readiness and enrollment. Just 12 percent of Latinos between 25 and 64 have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 42 percent of whites.
There is a significant underrepresentation of Latinos in California public colleges. While they are about 46 percent of the traditional college-age population, they are just 40 percent of students at community colleges, 35 percent at California State University campuses and 22 percent at University of California campuses.
The report found that these gaps are often driven by poor preparation and coordination between our high schools and colleges. Also, Latino students are more likely to be working, caring for other family members or be the first in their family to attend college – all factors in students not completing a degree.
The study did find some encouraging data. Younger Latinos are more likely to have a high school degree, to enroll in a four-year college and to graduate with a degree.
Still, California is projected to be woefully short of college graduates over the next decade – a deficit of many as 2.3 million by 2025, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
There are remedies for these shortcomings, and many have been proven in other states. It starts with the most fundamental: California needs to create a comprehensive plan for higher education that coordinates the three college systems and our high schools. It has to set measurable goals for enrollment and fund colleges based on performance, and especially degree completion.
The college systems need to fix the remedial education system that improperly consigns many students to years of non-college credit work, leading to a worsening dropout rate and increasing costs to students and the state.
We also need to expand “college knowledge” in middle and high schools to give students the best chance to prepare academically and be ready to secure financing, apply and enroll. These reforms will assist all students in California, but they will especially help close the gaps between ethnic groups in application, acceptance, enrollment and completion.
California can’t succeed as a world-class economy and state if we leave behind half of the population. Education leaders, legislators and the governor need to work together to address these issues of now.
Rob Lapsley is president of the California Business Roundtable.