Americans are better-educated than ever, according to a study released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau, but one group appears to lag far behind. Hispanics -- the nation's fastest-growing minority group -- have lower high school graduation rates than whites or blacks and substantially lower college attendance and graduation rates. Only 56 percent of Hispanics, compared with 84 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 77 percent of blacks, have graduated high school. And only 11 percent of Hispanics, compared with 26 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 15 percent of blacks, have a college degree. As troubling as these statistics are, they don't tell the whole story of Hispanic educational achievement in the United States, however.
Unlike the overwhelming majority of both whites and blacks, a huge proportion of Hispanics in the U.S. were born -- and in many cases educated -- abroad. Among adults over 25 (the group covered in the Census study), foreign-born Hispanics actually outnumber the U.S.-born by 8.9 million to 7.5 million. To lump together these often poorly educated, foreign-born Hispanics with American-born Hispanics confuses the picture of Hispanic educational attainment. It both underestimates education gains by native Hispanics over the last few decades and obscures a deep education gap between Hispanic immigrants and the rest of the population.
Fewer than half (47 percent) of Hispanic immigrants between the ages of 25 and 44 have earned a high school diploma, and the figures are even worse for older immigrants. Many of these immigrants finished their formal schooling before they immigrated to the United States. Others came during their school years and may have attended school here for awhile but dropped out without earning a degree. These immigrants will likely earn substantially less over their lifetimes as a result. But it's not quite the life catastrophe we usually predict for high school dropouts: high unemployment and higher rates of crime.
Immigrant 'dropouts' are far more likely to be in the labor force, for example, than U.S.-born dropouts. More than 70 percent of Hispanic immigrants who lack a high school education are active members of the labor force, either working or looking for work. This is not true for native dropouts. Nearly 60 percent of blacks who lack a high school diploma, for example, are out of the labor force altogether. Immigrants have a much higher labor force participation rate because jobs are what attracted them here in the first place. Nonetheless, this incredibly strong work ethic -- which native-born Hispanics share with their foreign-born counterparts -- presents problems of its own.
Hispanics born in the U.S. are far more likely than those born abroad to complete high school. Among native Hispanics 25 to 44 years old, nearly 80 percent have earned a diploma -- somewhat lower than either whites or blacks the same age. But the real problem is how few of these same Hispanics attend or complete college. Nearly one-in-three non-Hispanic whites in this age group have earned at least a bachelor's degree, but only 13 percent of American-born Hispanics have done the same. And the implication for future earnings among these Hispanics is stark. According to the Census Bureau, the average annual earnings for a high school graduate was about $23,000, but for a college graduate, average earnings rose to more than $40,000 a year.
Like their foreign-born counterparts, Hispanics born in the U.S. place a high value on work, perhaps too high for their long-term self-interest. Instead of delaying their entry into the labor force by continuing their education, too many young Hispanics get jobs immediately after graduating from high school. It's easy to blame economic necessity for driving Hispanics to work rather than continue their education -- but the facts suggest something more subtle is involved here. After all, blacks are somewhat poorer than U.S.-born Hispanics on average, but are much more likely to attend college.
Dr. Lauro Cavazos, the former Secretary of Education and the first Hispanic Cabinet member, got himself into hot water a few years ago for suggesting that Hispanic parents were partly to blame for lower Hispanic educational achievement. Instead of encouraging their kids to continue their education, many Hispanic parents are anxious for their children not only to become self-supporting but to contribute their paychecks to the whole family's income. These Hispanic youngsters find themselves caught between family duty and self-improvement.
I'm afraid Dr. Cavazos was right. Until more Hispanic parents begin insisting their kids go on to college, Hispanic educational attainment -- and lifetime earnings -- will lag behind other groups.