In a report released October 7 by the Pew Hispanic Center, nearly 90 percent of Latino young adults said a college education is important for success in life. However, only about 50 percent of respondents said they planned to get a college degree.
What can we take away from the findings of this representative survey? First, let’s put to rest the generalization that Latinos do not value education. The perception that Latinos do not value education continues to perpetuate despite the numerous surveys that show Latino parents and students place a higher value on a college education than other groups.
Second, the survey findings raise a more interesting question: Why is there a gap between the value Latino youth place in education and their individual plans to complete college? When the researchers looked at the responses of young Latino immigrants compared to native-born Latinos, they found similarity in their valuing education, but a large gap in their aspiration for college completion.
Latino immigrants represent about 35 percent of all Latino youths, yet less than 30 percent of young immigrant Latinos responded they intended to get a bachelors degree or higher. In comparison, 60 percent of native-born young Latinos aspired to get a bachelors degree or higher. The native-born rate is similar to the aspirations of the general youth population (60 percent).
Why are Latino immigrant youth less likely to aspire to college? According to the Pew Hispanic Center survey, foreign-born Latinos are more likely than native-born Latino youths to be supporting or helping to support a family. Therefore, the gap appears to be explained by work and financial commitments that limit their ability to pursue additional education, even though they see a college education as important for success in life.
Why are the findings from this survey important? It matters how we contextualize this information in making policy decisions. Do we want a system that makes students choose between supporting their family or going to college? We know that many Latino families are low-income and must balance immediate needs with long-term possibilities. How do we ensure our system of higher education offers the financial support necessary to offer real opportunities for college to these students? Without addressing the opportunity cost to go to college, policy will not close the gap between the value these students place in education and their aspirations to attain this education (the opportunity cost is the forgone income an individual could have made working instead of attending college full-time).
Our current financial aid system calculates need based on direct college costs. The more immediate financial needs of low-income and immigrant families are not easily covered with this aid. The Pell grant is not sufficient to offset the multiple financial needs of low-income families. Loans are not generally an option for many low-income families since too few have banking relationships and many prefer to “pay-as-they-go.”
What can we do to offset the opportunity cost these low-income students face when deciding whether to go to college or help support their family? Without a viable policy solution to address real and immediate financial needs of low-income students, we may lose a generation of students who value education but who will sacrifice that future goal to support their family today.
The Pew report, Latinos and Education: Explaining the Attainment Gap, was written by Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director, Pew Hispanic Center. The report can be found at www.pewhispanic.org.