Solving Latino achievement gap is critical for Arizona's future

Monday, May 4th, 2015

I am proud to co-author this column with Lea Márquez-Peterson, chief executive officer of the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, whose tremendous leadership is instrumental in the Chamber's mission to drive economic development while advancing Hispanic businesses and providing access to the Hispanic market.

Over the past few weeks, a handful of great community conversations have been effervescing on the importance of student success for our growing population of Hispanic students. The Tucson Hispanic Chamber, Valley of the Sun United Way and Helios Education Foundation each have convened captains of education, community and statewide leadership to consider the strategies necessary to deeply impact Hispanic student success.

There is a reason these groups, and many other important partners, are focused on this issue.

For more than a decade, minorities have made up the majority of students in Arizona's K-12 system, with Hispanic students today representing nearly 42 percent of total enrollment.

Yet they are less likely than any other major population segment in the United States to enroll in either college or graduate school. This is alarming, given the market demanding post-secondary education credentials for two-thirds of all jobs by 2018. 

Until these students have the same rate of educational success as their peers, we face a real threat to Arizona's overall economic health.

We are making progress, but we still have a long way to go to increase the number of students who are transitioning from high school to college - and eventually the workforce.

Where do we start? Well, forums like this one, where our shared interest in education and economic policy intersect to act as a clarion call for political and business leaders, as well as for families and students.

It also starts by facing the facts: Arizona ranks 40th in the nation for our college-going rate. Of the roughly 59,000 high school graduates, 24,000 of which are Hispanic, 53 percent do not qualify for admission into Arizona's public universities.

Of the 24,000 Hispanic high-school graduates, only about six percent go on to complete a two-year degree six years after graduating high school and only about 10 percent have a four-year degree.

We need not search far for the answer as to why these students are struggling. Sadly, poverty is a reality for many Hispanic families. We know that the single biggest predictor of their educational success is family income. Among Hispanics in Arizona, 29 percent live in families below the poverty level, while that number is about 18 percent for Arizonans as a whole.

And for those Hispanics who do live in poverty, about 46 percent are under the age of 18. Think about that for a moment: Children represent almost half of Arizona's Hispanic population affected by poverty.

These children are the future of our workforce. They are bicultural and bilingual, both of which are tremendous assets for businesses looking for a diverse and talented pipeline.

There is some good news: Record numbers of Hispanic students are graduating from our colleges and universities. Best of all,of the Hispanic students who do go on to college, we are closing the achievement gap and are within striking distance of enabling them to be as successful as their peers. Click here to see the latest results.

The level of diversity at our state universities is increasing. All three of our public universities - Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona - broke records this year for diversity. ASU has their most diverse student body ever this past fall, with 34 percent from underrepresented groups. Fifty-four percent of minority students enrolled were Hispanic. UA had record diversity among their freshman class at about 41 percent, up about 30 percent from 2000. And NAU had a nine percent growth in diversity this year and its Latino student population has increased 37 percent since 2010.

How do we foster greater success?

  • We must build a stronger college-going culture in Arizona. This means we need the help of business, philanthropic and community leaders to make their voices heard. Everywhere - from their board rooms to their children's class rooms to the State Capitol, where important decisions are made about the future of education in Arizona.
  • We must make college more affordable. This means we must work to create a more robust, needs-based financial aid system in the state. Federal government aid must also continue to be available to our students.
  • We must have a laser focus on retention - ensuring those students who step foot on an Arizona university or college campus, remain enrolled and have the on-campus support they need to move them through.

Together, with the deep support of our community and statewide leaders, we will continue to be unrelenting advocates so every student can access affordable, quality higher education and successfully complete their degree to realize their personal and professional potential.

Likewise, we hold our universities accountable for identifying new and novel ways to advance affordability measures internally. We will support bold policies that create more opportunity for all students.

The regents have proposed a new non-resident rate of tuition that would provide a break for students who graduate from an Arizona high school but who do not qualify for in-state tuition.

The proposed non-resident undergraduate rate would be 150 percent of the resident tuition rate set by the Board of Regents. The policy would serve a broad population of students, including those students with "Deferred Access" status, or Dreamers. Today, ABOR will have a discussion on this new rate.

Ultimately, it is up to Congress to act on immigration laws that would determine Dreamer students' access to, and affordability at, higher-education institutions. And, we continue to work with our delegation on this important issue. In the meantime, we need to find immediate, affordable solutions for them in a way that meets the current law while ensuring these students aren't left behind in an economy that values higher education.

We've outlined many challenges, but we are encouraged that our state is moving in the right direction to ensure the success of our growing Hispanic student population that is so vital to Arizona's economy.