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To protect California’s economy, invest in college success for Latinos

Student Angie Olivas takes notes during a Human Career Development class at Sacramento City College in 2015. That year, Sacramento City College received a $3.9 million federal grant to boost the number of Hispanic and low-income students enrolling in science, technology, engineering and math programs.
Student Angie Olivas takes notes during a Human Career Development class at Sacramento City College in 2015. That year, Sacramento City College received a $3.9 million federal grant to boost the number of Hispanic and low-income students enrolling in science, technology, engineering and math programs. rbenton@sacbee.com

Those of us who advocate for racial equity at the national level increasingly look to California as a bellwether for how to address deeply rooted structural inequities and advance opportunity in communities of color.

We’ll be paying close attention to what Governor Gavin Newsom does to ensure the state’s largest ethnic group, Latinos, has equal access to — and equitable outcomes in — higher education.

Gov. Newsom has an opportunity to be a leader on improving higher education attainment rates and closing equity gaps not only for the state, but for the rest of the nation. While some may characterize this as a moral imperative, we see it as an economic one as well.

More than 50 percent of California’s K-12 students are Latino. The state’s economic destiny is largely in their hands. Unfortunately, while California’s education policies and its public university system are generally considered forward-thinking, they have fallen short when it comes to educating the Latino students who will soon make up the bulk of the state’s workforce.

True, there are hints of progress. The rates of Latino students attending and graduating from college have increased in recent decades. Of the 2.8 million students in college in California today, a whopping 43 percent are Latino. But while they have made inroads, they still earn bachelor’s degrees at far lower rates than their peers.

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In fact, the “attainment gap” between whites and Latinos is more of a chasm, according to The Campaign for College Opportunity. Fifty-two percent of white students graduate with a bachelor’s or associate’s degree compared to just 18 percent of Latino students.

Why does this matter? For one thing, the state of California is currently not producing enough college graduates to meet employers’ anticipated needs by the year 2030. This is because the state does not adequately prepare Latino students to pursue bachelor’s degrees, much less provide the access and affordability they need to attend college. It’s no wonder the 2018 California Higher Education Report Card, issued by the Campaign for College Opportunity, gave the state a C-minus.

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Latino students will soon be the core of the state’s workforce, and employers project that 60 percent of workers will need postsecondary degrees by 2030. That’s why California’s new governor must make improved college attainment for Latinos a top priority.

UnidosUS has joined the Campaign for College Opportunity and a diverse set of more than 100 stakeholders in insisting that Gov. Newsom set a 60 percent attainment goal for California’s Latino population. California could be the first state in the nation to set this type of equity and attainment goal. By doing so, the state could provide the nation with the road map on how to succeed.

But success will require providing real transfer pathways, the elimination of outdated remedial education requirements, and funding the state’s public universities to operate at full capacity.

If the Golden State hopes to have a golden economic future and be a shining beacon for the rest of the nation, it must eliminate the stark racial and ethnic disparities rampant in its educational institutions.

Because without a college-educated workforce that includes Latino graduates, cutting-edge companies in California will face severe shortages of qualified workers and take their business – and their jobs – elsewhere.

Janet Murguía is President and CEO of UnidosUS
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