"Increasingly, college attainment is mandatory for labor market success," Tienda said. "Individuals who don't receive some form of post-secondary education will be marginalized in the economy of the 21st century," she said.
But another consideration is the fact that Hispanics are projected to be the fastest growing segment of the labor force in the years ahead. Immigration will continue to add to the number of Hispanics in the United States, but in the coming years, it is their above-average birth rates that will really drive population growth, according to demographers. On average, Hispanic women can expect to have about one more child than the average non-Hspanic white woman, Tienda said. "U.S. competitiveness will be impacted by the progress Hispanics make at all levels of the educational system," she said.
So what keeps Latino students out of higher education?
"Financial considerations are a significant barrier," said Cecilia Rios Agular, a professor of education at Clarmont Graduate School. "But this is more than just a financial issue. It is much more complicated." Family and legal considerations also weigh heavily on these students.
When Nerina Garcia-Arcement, then 18, announced she had been accepted to Stanford University with a scholarship, she was met with disapproving stares. Her parents, who emigrated from Mexico as teenagers, weren't impressed. Attending the prestigious school would require her to move away from home.
Their reaction took Garcia-Arcement, now 36, completely by surprise. When Garcia-Arcement was 12, her parents moved the family from East Los Angeles 12 miles south, to Whittier, because they wanted their kids to have better educational opportunities.
"My parents always said to me, 'Use your brain so you don't have to use your body like a donkey,' " she said. She took their advice to start earning top grades, playing flute with the school band and participating in student government.
Her parents' lack of enthusiasm stung, but now she understands that by moving away for school, she was challenging family norms.
"Culturally you aren't supposed to leave your parents' house unless you are married," she said. "I think my parents worried about my reputation."
It isn't that Hispanic parents don't want their kids to go to college, according to Rios Agular. "They believe in education. They immigrated to this country because they wanted better lives for their kids," she said. University is unchartered territory for many Hispanic parents. "They hear things about what happens at college, and they get nervous," Garcia-Arcement said. "My parents wanted to protect me."
"This isn't a dead issue, either," she said. Just over the weekend, Garcia-Arcement learned that one of her cousins, a top student in Texas who has been admitted with full scholarships to several Ivy League universities, won't be going to college in the fall because her parents do not support her leaving home.
Garcia-Arcement went Stanford. She earned a bachelor's degree and went on to get a doctorate from Fordham University in New York City. Today, she works as a clinical psychologist in Brooklyn, New York.
While she is a huge advocate of college, she admits her education places a wedge between her and some of her family. "When someone like me thinks about college, we have to wrestle with our identity. If higher education is not something most of your family does, you will be different," she said.
For the educated children of tightly knit Latino families, that difference is a bitter pill to swallow. "For us, education is not just about what we gain, but also what we lose," Garcia-Arcement said.
"Before I went to college, I was like them, an insider. But during college, they started treating me differently." The good-natured jokes her cousins made about her vocabulary or studious habits took on a different tone. She couldn't tell if they were laughing with her or at her. "With so many members of my family, I can only be half of myself," she said.
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