News Column

Meeting At UTEP: Higher Ed Growth Key

May 4, 2012

Vic Kolenc

Some El Paso movers and shakers convened at UTEP Wednesday to hear experts talk about the ever-growing Hispanic population in Texas and across the nation, discuss the economic boost of college degrees, and debate in small groups about how El Paso can get more kids to go to college, keep more of those graduates in El Paso, and improve this area's economic development.

It was called the "Opportunity Days" conference. The event was tied to the newly formed, Boston-based Opportunity Nation, which is aimed at closing the opportunity gap in America and finding ways to boost more people up the economic ladder.

UTEP is one of 12 colleges chosen as Opportunity Nation partners because of its successes with its majority-Hispanic student population.

About 100 invited leaders of El Paso's business, education and civic sectors attended the conference. They were asked by UTEP President Diana Natalicio and others to join a long-term effort to create a new economic development plan for El Paso.

Mark Edwards, Opportunity Nation executive director, said that even though El Paso lags the state and nation in the number of residents with college degrees, a lot of "remarkable" work has been done here in the past 20 years to bring more opportunities to El Pasoans.

Steve Murdock, well-known Texas demographer and professor of sociology at Rice University, rattled off a seemingly endless stream of numbers to paint the picture of a rapidly expanding Hispanic population. The nation's population is expected to grow by 157 million people between 2000 and 2050 and 62 percent of that growth will be Hispanics, adding to the already large Hispanic population, he said.

"It is clear the future of the United States, the future of Texas and El Paso is dependent on our minority population, and how well they do is how well America will do, how well Texas will do and how well El Paso will do."

The poverty rate for Hispanics and African-Americans is three times as high as that for the Anglo population, he said.

"In 2000, 19 percent of the workforce in Texas had less than a high-school education, and if we do nothing," that number will be 30 percent by 2040, he said. "That is not the formula for a high-tech Texas."

Natalicio said El Paso has already "beaten the odds" against it as one of the nation's poorest cities. El Paso is out- performing other Texas metro areas in high-school graduation rates and number of low-income high-school students going to college, she said. The biggest problem here, she said, is that a lot of UTEP graduates are leaving the city for better jobs elsewhere.

"We've made real progress on the workforce front, but we are lagging in the workplace environment," she said after her conference speech.

Anthony Carnevale, an economist and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said colleges and other post-high-school educational institutions have become the nation's workforce development system. That happened after the 1981 recession, he said.

"There are other ways to train the workforce," but it's unlikely that a higher education system developed over a number of years, with about $440 billion poured into it each year will be torn down, he said.

It's clear that "some form of postsecondary education is absolutely necessary to participate fully in the economy" and in the society, he said. That can be a college degree or a certificate from a training institution, he said.

College degrees bring graduates higher incomes, he said. However, what a student studies makes a difference in what income he or she can make, and colleges need to better articulate that relationship, he said.

Murdock, the demographer, said, "The single best indicator of economic growth for people and for areas is higher education, and education, period."

Raymond Palacios, an El Paso car dealership owner and part of CommUNITY En Accion, a group of El Paso business people aimed at instilling Hispanic pride and improving the area, said El Paso is a "city yearning to bust loose."

But El Paso has to invest in its "human capital" to advance, he said.

Pat Mora, an award-winning author and UTEP graduate, said we need to "invest in the planet's most natural resource, human potential." And that's "our young ones," she said.

Source: (c)2012 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas)

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