Obama Urges College Completion Agenda As Economic Imperative

Despite the hosting university officials being embroiled in an historic affirmative action case in a state where immigration reform is a hot-button issue, President Barack Obama steered clear of controversial race and immigration issues Monday in a rousing speech in Texas meant to advance his administration’s “cradle to career” education agenda as the means to a better economy.

“Education is the economic issue of our time,” Obama said before a sea of Texas Longhorns T-shirt-wearing students Monday at the University of Texas at Austin in a speech titled “Higher Education and the Economy.”

“It’s an economic issue when the unemployment rate for folks who’ve never gone to college is almost double what it is for those who have gone to college,” Obama said in the speech, which was viewed in some quarters as a way to include an “official” event in what was otherwise a two-stop fundraising tour in order to get taxpayers to foot the bill.

Before Obama’s speech back in Washington, two officials from the Education Department emphasized the importance of doing more to help Latino students get to and through college over the next decade in order to “educate our way to a better economy” and help reach the Obama Administration’s higher education goal of restoring the United States as the world’s leader in college-degree attainment.

“Now is more important than ever in the Hispanic community,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a telephone conference with reporters, noting that only 11 percent of college students are Hispanic, whereas Hispanics represent roughly 15.5 percent of the U.S. population.

“We think that number is far too low,” Duncan said of the Latino college enrollment rate during the phone conference, in which he was joined by Juan Sepulveda, director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

Duncan and Sepulveda spoke of the need to do more to “build a culture” of going to college and completing college among the Latino segment of the population.

Although Obama’s speech and the Education Secretary’s phone conference were heavy on touting the Obama administration’s accomplishments in areas such as student loan reform, investing in community colleges and boosting financial aid, observers said in the years ahead it will be important to do what the administration did Monday by shining the spotlight on the need to improve college-completion rates among Latinos.

“When public officials, including the education secretary, emphasize that if we want to improve educational attainment, (that) there’s no way we’re going to get there when the fastest growing group tends to be the least educated, it’s helpful to help people understand that we have a rough road ahead of us,” said Richard Fry, senior research associate at the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization and a project of the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan “fact tank” in Washington.

However, highlighting the problem is one thing. Developing and implementing solutions are altogether different.

Fry said when it comes to low Latino college-completion rates, one of the biggest factors is the fact that Latino youths are more likely to start out their quest for a four-year degree at a two-year college, which historically have had lower completion rates than — and low transfer rates to — four-year institutions.

Statistics from the American Association of Community Colleges show that Hispanics at community colleges represent 55 percent of all undergraduates, versus 46 percent for African-Americans, Asian/Pacific Islanders and U.S. undergraduates as a whole.

“We need to do a better job of educating students and their families that where you go to college matters,” Fry said.

But what also matters is what takes place before Latino students even reach college, says Melissa Lazarin, associate director of education policy at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, which describes itself as a “progressive” policy organization.

“An important part of this is to get more Latinos to graduate from high school,” Lazarin said of the Latino dropout rate, which statistics show is more than twice the national average at 21 percent. “If we get those numbers up in high school, that in and of itself will help produce more college-going students.”

Among other things, Lazarin said, Latino youths are often faced with choosing between pursuing educational goals and working help bring in more income for their families.

“Young Latinos are a big part of our work force,” Lazarin said. “There is a pressure economically, a need even to help bring food to the table for the family.”

One way to deal with it, she said, is to reconceptualize high school and make it more flexible for Latino and other students from nontraditional backgrounds.

“We have to think about ways to design our school system to meet the needs of today’s students,” she said.