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Perspective: Hispanic Students at a Crossroads

As the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, or HACU, celebrates its 25th anniversary and prepares to gather in San Antonio for its annual conference and gala (October 29-31), the nation is facing a transformational moment that cries for greater and wiser investments in education—particularly in Hispanic higher education—to meet the challenge of regaining the global lead in college degree attainment. The stakes could not be higher.

However, the talk inside the Washington, D.C., beltway seems to ignore the dual national reality of a wider gap in degree completion—compared to other industrialized countries—and persistent Hispanic higher education under-attainment, especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, disciplines.

A National Academies Press (2011) book titled “Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads” offers a policy map to tackle these realities.

Every one of its recommendations implies a significant investment of new resources in K-12 and higher education and a better use of those resources with a focus on students of color.

At nearly 55 million strong, including 4 million in Puerto Rico, Hispanics are 16 percent of the nation’s population and by far the largest minority demographic in the nation. The Census Bureau projects that Hispanics will account for one of every four of the more than 400 million Americans by 2050. With a median age of 27.5, versus 36.8 for non-Hispanic Whites, they also are the youngest population and already account for nearly one of every four K-12 students. The future of the entire nation largely depends on how well this burgeoning demographic is able to succeed in higher education.

The National Academies publication also examines the dearth of Hispanics in STEM careers. Only 4.7 percent of the 2006 national workforce in science and engineering is reported to be Hispanic, compared to 74.5 percent composed of non-Hispanic Whites and 16.4 percent of Asian Americans. To reach parity in this segment of the American workforce, Hispanics would need to more than triple their participation rate.

The backbone of Hispanic higher education is constituted by the more than 300 Hispanic-Serving Institutions, or HSIs, that enroll 54 percent of the 2.4 million Hispanics in college today. HACU represents these institutions and nearly 200 emerging HSIs that are increasing their Hispanic enrollments close to the 25 percent threshold required for HSI designation. The combined enrollment of HSIs and other HACU-member institutions is estimated at 4.8 million, which includes more than two of every three Hispanic college students nationwide.

Regrettably, HSIs remain at the bottom with respect to federal funding. They receive, on average, a mere 66 cents for every federal dollar going to all institutions annually per student (HACU analysis of IPEDS 2007-08 data). Unless this wide gap is closed expeditiously, HSIs will not have the necessary resources to increase their capacity to serve their fast-growing learning communities. Furthermore, they will not be able to offer adequate STEM programs of the quality required by our high-skill driven economy.

As Congress and the Obama administration continue to debate and negotiate budget cuts and realignment of limited resources, it is crucial that they seriously consider the facts about the educational infrastructure needed for national competitiveness and economic growth, along with the realities of minority underrepresentation in the ranks of college graduates, particularly with respect to Hispanics and especially in STEM fields. If the country is to regain its global leadership in degree attainment and maintain its edge in innovation and productivity, our national and local leaders, corporate America and the philanthropic community need to boost their investments in world class educational opportunities for all Americans.

Granted, not everyone is college bound, but everyone should be able to make a choice about seeking a high-quality higher education. Over many past generations this option has been exercised by millions of Americans whose parents had no collegiate experience or even a high school diploma.

Higher education has become the most profitable investment for individuals and for society to make. For the past three decades, however, there have been gradual and significant changes in the way higher education is financed, shifting a greater share of the cost to the student while federal and state investments have proportionately decreased, particularly to the states. This trend must be reversed if we are to reclaim the global lead in degree attainment and if we want to remain a prosperous nation “with liberty and justice for all.”

HACU’s 25th anniversary may well mark a transformational year, when the nation will choose the path of hope as it faces a crossroads of priorities and will recommit to higher education success for all Americans who aim for a college degree.

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