News Column

A Positive Learning Curve

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Some gender disparities are evident in the data on educational attainment. Middle-class Hispanic women who head a household are more likely than their male counterparts – 21 percent versus 19 percent – to have a bachelor’s degree, according to 1996–2000 Census data.

That finding helps deflate the stereotypical view that the traditional Hispanic family structure constrains women’s education, says Mr. Bean, author of “The Latino Middle Class: Myth, Reality and Potential,” a study commissioned by the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute.

Mr. Bean’s study also refutes the common belief that education is valued less by Hispanics than by other ethnic groups. The study reports that the percentage of household income spent on higher education is about the same – 8 percent – for both Hispanic and Anglo families.

“To me, this expenditure of about the same fraction of household income on higher education suggests [Hispanics] value education just as much as anyone else,” he says.

The reason educational attainment is lower among Hispanics is not that they value it less, he continues, but that they have less money to spend on education and tend to have larger families, meaning less money per child.

The policy implications are clear. Low-income families need more assistance with college expenses. That’s where organizations such as the Hispanic Scholarship Fund (HSF) can make a crucial difference.

Sara Martinez Tucker, HSF president, says scholarships and other financial aid can help Hispanic students overcome deficiencies in the two greatest predictors of a student’s college enrollment – parental education and income.

“We’re proving we can find kids who don’t have those predictors [of higher educational success] and make them people who have the predictors for the next generation,” she says.

In fact, a study by Elias Lopez of California Polytechnic University concludes that “social capital” from home and school are more important than socioeconomic status in determining educational achievements, for both Anglo and Hispanic youth. Social capital refers to emotional encouragement as measured by involvement from parents, teachers, and guidance counselors. The study, published by the Julian Samora Research Institute at the University of Michigan, specifically found that reading and writing activities in the home translate into educational advancement.

Bachelor's Degrees Earned by U.S. Hispanics
Top fields of study



Percent change





Social Sciences












Health professions




Biological/life sciences




Source: American Council on Education, "Minorities in Higher Education 2000-2001"

But Ms. Martinez Tucker worries about the growing weight of economic factors. One of the most critical problems is the rise in higher-education costs, especially as a percentage of household income.

Over the past two decades, she says, the cost of putting one child through college has grown proportionally higher for low-income households than for middle- and upper-income households. In 1979–1980, the cost to send one child to college represented 39 percent of a low-income household’s annual income, compared with 12 percent for middle-income and 5 percent for upper-income households. Twenty years later, the cost to send one child to college represents 61 percent of the annual income of a low-income household, compared with 17 percent for middle-income and 5 percent for upper-income households.

“It is the lower average income that affects the lower per capita spending by Hispanics on education,” says Adela de la Torre, director of the Mexican American Studies & Research Center at the University of Arizona. “I would suspect as you look at the distribution of educational spending across the spectrum of income levels, you will see similar spending patterns on education for white non-Hispanics.” Ms. de la Torre sees the problem surfacing long before college, however. “There have been countless studies that show that as education increases for Hispanics, so does income,” she says. “Thus, as we correct the K–12 pipeline, particularly for those at the lowest level of the income stream, the marginal return on educational income spending should increase.”

The consequences of Hispanic academic achievement ripple far beyond the U.S. Hispanic community. Mr. Flores of HACU says improvement in educational attainment among Hispanics, including those in the middle class, is essential for the entire U.S. economy, which will increasingly rely on the Hispanic work force.

“We have to invest more in education so our economy competes well with the rest of the world,” Mr. Flores says. “Society expects us to get more education to be competitive.”

Source: HISPANIC BUSINESS magazine

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