Higher Education

OPINION: Latinos find the deck stacked against them in this state

Feeling the brunt of low wages and limited college access

Lande Ajose

Lande Ajose

Latinos make up the fastest growing segment of California’s population, but they do not benefit equitably from our state’s educational and workforce opportunities.

The state faces a looming deficit of more than two million individuals with degrees or credentials by 2025. Meanwhile, Latinos, who make up nearly 40 percent of our rich and diverse population, are grappling with relatively low wages and poor education outcomes.

Higher education has always been regarded as both a vaccine against and an antidote to social and economic stagnation — and this is true more than ever as increasing numbers of jobs require college degrees. But Latinos trying to make it to college, complete their degrees and land good-paying jobs face tough odds.

Related: Most immigrants outpace Americans when it comes to education — with one big exception

Jill Barshay of The Hechinger Report raises an important question regarding the role of education in providing equitable access to the American Dream in her March Proof Points column, “Most immigrants outpace Americans when it comes to education — with one big exception.

That “one big exception” is immigrants from Mexico, who number more than 4.3 million in California — a group larger than the entire population of Oregon.

Our recent publication, “Opportunity Imbalance: Race, Gender, and California’s Education-to-Employment Pipeline,” confirms Barshay’s statistics. Latino degree attainment is the lowest in the state compared with other racial and ethnic groups, despite marked improvement across generations for Latina women. While still low, the percentage of Latina women with college degrees jumps from 13 percent for those over 55 to 24 percent for those aged 25 to 34. Men aren’t so lucky: their degree attainment rate hovers around 16 percent, regardless of age. And overall, fewer than 20 percent of Latinos have earned associate degrees or higher.

A starker story emerges when we consider people’s nations of origin. Californians of Mexican and Central American heritage — who together make up 93 percent of California’s Latinos — have the lowest college attainment rates, both near 15 percent.

College degree attainment rates for native-born Central Americans rise to 40 percent for women and 30 percent for men, but for native-born Mexican Californians, the female and male attainment rates are lower, at 26 percent and 22 percent, respectively (see table).

The opportunity imbalance isn’t a statistic. It’s a jarring picture of a large proportion of our residents left unprepared for the modern economy.

Related: Many state flagship universities leave black and Latino students behind

One area that merits further examination is how these inequities translate to wages. Workers are overrepresented in low-wage fields such as building and grounds maintenance and earn less than the state median wage for those top fields in which they are most frequently employed, such as construction.

Again, the picture is bleakest for Mexican and Central American Californians. Both groups earn a median annual wage of around $22,000 for foreign-born workers and $31,000 for native-born workers. But California Latinos of other origins see higher median wages: $33,000 for foreign-born workers, and $39,000 for native-born workers. Gender wage gaps are smaller for Latinos of all national origins compared to non-Latinos, but it pays to be born here, as the gap is cut nearly in half for native-born Latinos compared to foreign-born Latinos.

Related: New research shows Latinos closing the racial gap on college degrees, but still lagging far behind whites

Another harsh reality: Latinos in California experience steep gender inequities in workforce participation rates. Only 67 percent of Latina women are in the workforce in California compared with 87 percent of Latino men, constituting the largest gender gap of any racial/ethnic group in our study.

These rates are nearly the same when comparing Mexican and Central American Latinos, but the gender gap among other Latinos shrinks to only 10 percentage points (73 percent for women compared to 83 percent for men).

The fact that the Latino population isn’t reaping its share of California’s educational and workforce opportunites leaves a large portion of our residents limited in economic mobility — and poorly positioned to meet the demand for trained employees to fill high-paying jobs. Serious discussions and actions aimed at improving higher-education outcomes must tackle racial and gender inequities as well as their impacts on the economy.

We cannot continue to sell the idea that more education is the ticket to prosperity without simultaneously working to ensure that to be equally true for all.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Lande Ajose is the executive director of California Competes, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working for improved policies and practices in California’s higher education system.

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Lande Ajose

Lande Ajose is the executive director of California Competes, a non-profit, nonpartisan organization working for improved policies and practices in California’s higher education system. See Archive

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