Cristina Nino-Zavala watched her parents work in dead-end jobs they didn’t like — her father as a mechanic, her mother putting pills in bottles on a southern Michigan assembly line — and assumed she was headed toward the same fate.
No one in her family had gone to college. The daughter of Mexican immigrants and eldest of five siblings, she was only dimly even aware of the concept.
“I knew it was education after high school, but that was it,” Nino-Zavala said. “I thought I could never go, that it was too much money and my parents couldn’t afford it.”
Now she’s just begun her freshman year at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, where she’s majoring in engineering with a minor in business and plans to go on to get a graduate degree and work in the oil industry.
That dramatic transformation took four years of summer learning academies, college-preparation programs, scholarship coaching, and leadership workshops, all provided by area nonprofits, plus a 3.8 grade-point average and enough financial aid to cover all of her tuition for at least her first year.
It’s an inspiring story, of beating long odds with help and hard work, one that’s sure to warm the hearts of idealists.
But a growing body of work concludes that there’s a coldly practical reason to get more people like Nino-Zavala to go to — and get through — college:
If they don’t, the quality of life will drop for everybody else.
It’s not politics or altruism. It’s math. By far the fastest-growing group of college-age people is Hispanic. If they continue to lag behind the dwindling number of college-age whites in getting university degrees, as they do now, there will be too few workers to take up the slack of baby boomers retiring from essential high-salary positions, and too many in lower-paying jobs.
That means less innovation, dwindling consumer spending, more poverty, and decreasing tax revenue to cover spiraling demand for services.
As a result, improving higher education for Hispanics is now about more than altruism, said Bob Wise, former congressman and governor of West Virginia who is now president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and one of the voices sounding this alarm. It’s about self-interest.
“We’ve finally reached a moment in our society where the morals and the money have joined,” Wise said. “It’s not just about doing well for others. If you don’t, you’re not going to be doing well for yourself.”
About a third of Hispanics 25 and older have some college education, and 16 percent have bachelor’s degrees — barely half, and less than half, the proportion of whites, respectively — the Census Bureau reports.
But the supply of college-age whites is steadily falling, while the number of college-age Hispanics will more than double nationwide by 2060, according to projections by the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas at Rice University. The number of Hispanics of all ages will more than double while the number of whites will decline by 8 percent.
The most dramatic place to see this is in kindergarten through grade 12, where Hispanics make up nearly a quarter of enrollment nationwide, up from 16 percent in 2000. By 2060, more K-12 students will be Hispanic than any other race — 38 percent — while the proportion that is white drops from half to one third, according to projections by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin. And they’ll all be hurtling toward college age.
Unless something changes, the shortfall in the total number of people with degrees will only grow bigger.
Those projections gravely worry Steve Murdock, head of the Hobby Center and former U.S. Census Bureau director under President George W. Bush.
“Our economy, our society, will be increasingly dependent on what happens to people who are now minorities,” Murdock said.
The existing educational divide is one reason whites have median household incomes half again as high as Hispanics, or $57,674 a year compared to $40,337, with all of the implications for spending power. If left unchecked when the population shifts, Murdock estimates, it means annual household incomes for all Americans would drop by 5 percent by 2060. That’s an average of $3,562 per year per household, when adjusted for inflation. Individual income would fall by an average $2,343 per year, per person.
The number of households in poverty would increase 64 percent, a book Murdock coauthored last year, “Population Change in the United States: Socioeconomic Challenges and Opportunities in the Twenty-First Century,” predicts.
But if the education gap were closed, he calculates, median household income would be $20,000 higher and per capita income would go up by $15,000 thanks in part to a big increase in consumer spending.
“How well we do in providing more resources for minority students is really the key to how well all of us will do,” Murdock said.
That argument can only help propel support for young Hispanics aspiring to go to college, said Deborah Santiago, co-founder and vice president for policy at the advocacy organization Excelencia in Education.
“Enlightened self-interest matters to some people, if for no other reason than that they care about their Social Security,” she said. “Because one out of two people feeding into Social Security are going to be black and brown. That motivates some people.”
Fixing the problem won’t be easy.
While there’s been a seemingly huge increase in the number of Hispanics going to college — college enrollment among Hispanics aged 18 to 24 more than tripled between 1996 and 2012, the Pew Research Center reports — it’s still not on pace to close the gap.
That’s because 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, Pew says. They also have lower graduation rates; only about half who pursue bachelor’s degrees earn them within six years, the U.S. Department of Education reports, compared to 62 percent of whites.
This disparity is largely the result of a “troubling picture” of financial hardship, language barriers, and problems in some cases with legal status, a report by the principal association of colleges and universities, the American Council on Education, found.
“They aren’t keeping up,” said Murdock. “The sobering thing here is that particularly the Hispanic population is not making the progress in education that we need, not only for them but for all of us.”
The flood of nonwhite students from families with lower incomes also means that cash-strapped universities and colleges, or the government, will have to come up with huge amounts of additional financial aid.
About three-quarters of Hispanic students even at lower-cost community colleges have unmet financial need today, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy. That’s the highest level of all racial groups, a study by researchers at the University of Southern California found. College costs, including tuition, room and board, the USC researchers showed, can be as much as five times higher than the entire median net worth of an Hispanic household.
“We’re going to have to face up to this,” said Murdock.
It also isn’t lost on Hispanic students like Cristina Nino-Zavala that non-Hispanics don’t connect her success with theirs. She’s been particularly stung, she said, by negative election-year political rhetoric about Hispanic immigrants.
“When I see those kinds of things on TV, I think, ‘What about me, and what about the people who have gone to college?’” she said. Critics “only look at the surface. They see what they want to see.”
Some other observers counsel calm. Murdock’s scenario, they point out, assumes the worst — that nothing will change. “The doomsday predictions of course come true under those circumstances,” said Jeff Strohl, director of research at the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce.
But Hispanic college-going is, in fact, on the rise, Strohl pointed out. “The needle hasn’t moved as much as we would like on the attainment levels,” he said. “But clearly there is a college-going culture among the Hispanic population.”
Even very small improvements in Hispanic earnings can dramatically change the formula that results in the most dire predictions about individual and household income, said Strohl, who has run the numbers.
“You can see just how sensitive this entire argument about the demise of life as you know it is on the basis of nothing else changing,” he said.
He agreed there’s room for concern, however.
Previous immigrant groups traditionally lived in the United States for a first and second generation before the third began to go to college, Strohl said. But the number of Hispanics is so large, and the gap so big, he said, “We can’t really wait for the third generation. We need this to happen in the second generation.”
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For evidence of that, all people have to do is glance at their local public schools, said Murdock.
“We’ve gotten through what was at one time a phase when people were saying, ‘That just can’t be true’” that the Hispanic achievement gap would have such wide economic repercussions, he said. “Now people have looked at this and seen that these differences are real. They look at their high schools and they look at their grade schools and they look at the percentage of these kids that are black and Hispanic, and obviously they’re going to be our future.”
Murdock said, “This is one of the things that has really been most effective to our message: the number of people who have come up to me and said, ‘I got to realizing that this isn’t their problem. This is our problem. And I have a stake.’”
Unlike most of our stories, this piece is an exclusive collaboration and may not be republished.