As the Obama administration makes efforts to reach their college graduation goals by the end of the decade, attention turns to the over 50 million Latinos in the U.S.
As the largest minority population in the country, Latino college graduation rates will play a vital role in the nation's quest to become the world leader in college completion by 2020. Latino students will need to earn 5.5 million certificates or degrees over the next several years for the U.S. to meet Obama's goal, according to Excelencia in Education's initiative, "Ensuring America's Future by Increasing Latino College Completion,". Excelencia in Education is a Washington, D.C.-based education research organization.
Socio-economic factors, however, limit Latino access to college and graduation rates.
"Over 40 percent of Latinos who are enrolled in college are the first in their family to go to college. And so you already have issues not just of enrollment but persistence to completion that require academic support," stated Deborah Santiago, Excelencia in Education's co-founder and vice president for policy and research.
Earlier this month, the Pew Hispanic Center reported that Latinos became the largest minority group on college campuses across the country--with 2 million Latino students enrolling in two-year and four-year college institutions in 2011.
Despite this increase, Latino high school and college graduation rates continue to lag behind those of other groups. The majority of Latinos who earn degrees also do not leave campus with degrees in fields with strong hiring prospects or high-earning potential. With many economists predicting that the nation's labor market will remain tepid for some time, the drive to expand the Latino college completion rate could benefit from aligning what more students study to workforce needs.
James Hinojosa, a 3rd-year student at DePaul University in Chicago, mentioned his feelings towards his educational goals and current major. "I'm the first in my family to graduate from high school, the first to go to college," Hinojosa stated. "Growing up in Pilsen, I've seen crime, gangs, and drugs: I want to change that. I think getting a major in Sociology with a focus on Latin American and Latino Studies will help me work directly with my community."
James, who grew up in Pilsen, one of Chicago's predominantly Mexican/Mexican-American neighborhoods, believes that working at the grassroots level will create the bigger changes the Latino community desires. "I know that working with local people - families, immigrants, youth - is more important than talking policy somewhere in D.C. because my people have seen this happen. (Latinos) have been victims of policy-work that doesn't reflect the realities of our communities. Education, healthcare, safe neighborhoods, we really need this."
In July, the national unemployment rate sat at 8.5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The nation's Latino workers faced the second highest unemployment rate in the country, with 10.3 percent, seeking work but unable to find it. Latino unemployment has become such a persistent problem that in July, Latino joblessness sat just 1 percent lower than it did during the same period a year ago.
This is a primary reason that Carlos Valle, a freshman at Loyola University Chicago, decided to pursuit a degree in finance and accounting. "While I believe that Latinos need to help other Latinos, the reality is that money talks," Valle confidently stated as he walked to his condo in the upscale Gold Coast neighborhood. "There is too much pressure from the Latino community to give back to the poor, those without anything. I think that's great, but the reality is you have to help yourself become someone in the world before offering your money away."
Despite an increase in college enrollment, the number of Latinos graduating from two-year and four-year institutions lags behind that of other groups. In 2010, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, 112,000 associate degrees and 140,000 bachelor's degrees were conferred on Latinos. Compared to the 1.2 million bachelor's degrees awarded to non-Hispanic white students and the 165,000 bachelor's degrees conferred to non-Hispanic black students.
Nonetheless, the number of Latinos graduating from college continues to grow. In 2010, the number was seven times higher than it was four decades before.
The number of Latino students graduating from high school has also grown, a 76 percent rise from 2010 to 2011. However, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the Hispanic high school dropout rate of 15.1 percent continues to outpace that of all other racial and ethnic groups.
"We can't be satisfied with such low graduation rates for Latinos," Hinojosa told Le Prestige. "I think it's selfish and unsustainable when we have Latino politicians, celebrities, business elites, and lawyers who aren't putting their time, money, and effort to the communities they come from and represent."
While some believe that Latinos themselves have a commitment to giving back to the Latino community, others don't feel the same way. Trish Calvillo, an investment banker from Manhattan, believes hard-work and persistence is crucial to improving the state of the Latino community across the United States. "No, I will not donate a bunch of my money to your local organization, but I will perform workshops on financial literacy and offer my time," Calvillo stated.
"I believe that if you have the right attitude and you work hard, good things will come. I have offered my time and knowledge to Latino communities in Chicago, New York City, and Miami, but time and time again I find that they simply want money from you. The sad thing is that if you also don't live among la raza, and look and talk like them, then you are automatically considered a malinchista - a traitor. It's not fair: no one helped my mom and dad when they struggled to find employment in the '60s."