October 7, 2009

Latinos and Education: Explaining the Attainment Gap

I. Overview

Nearly nine-in-ten (89%) Latino young adults1 say that a college education is important for success in life, yet only about half that number—48%—say that they themselves plan to get a college degree, according to a new national survey of Latinos by the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center.

The biggest reason for the gap between the high value Latinos place on education and their more modest aspirations to finish college appears to come from financial pressure to support a family, the survey finds.

Nearly three-quarters (74%) of all 16- to 25-year-old survey respondents who cut their education short during or right after high school say they did so because they had to support their family. Other reasons include poor English skills (cited by about half of respondents who cut short their education), a dislike of school and a feeling that they don’t need more education for the careers they want (each cited by about four-in-ten respondents who cut their education short).

Latino schooling in the U.S. has long been characterized by high dropout rates and low college completion rates (Kewal Ramani, Gilbertson, Fox, and Provasnik, 2007). Both problems have moderated over time, but a persistent educational attainment gap remains between Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites.2

The Pew Hispanic Center survey finds that there actually are two different gaps in the educational aspirations of the young. One is between Hispanic young adults ages 18 to 25 and the general U.S. population of that age group. Some 48% of the former group expects to get a college degree or more, compared with 60% of the latter group.3

But a second gap is even bigger, and it largely explains the first gap. It is between young Latinos who are immigrants and those who are native born. Less than one-in-three (29%) immigrant Latinos ages 18 to 25 say they plan to get a bachelor’s degree or more, half the share (60%) of native-born young Latinos who say the same.

The foreign born make up 35% of all Latino youths, and they are much more likely than native-born Latino youths to be supporting or helping to support a family, either in the U.S. or in their native country. In 2007, 29% of all immigrant female Hispanics ages 16 to 25 were mothers, compared with 17% of native-born female Hispanics and 12% of white females (Fry, 2009).4 In addition, nearly two-thirds (64%) of all immigrant Hispanics ages 18 to 25 say they send remittances to family members in their country of origin, compared with just 21% of their U.S. born counterparts (Lopez and Livingston, 2009). In short, young immigrant Hispanics appear to have financial commitments that limit their ability to pursue more education, even though they see a college education as important for success in life.

According to data from the Census Bureau, 33% of Latinos ages 18 to 24 are enrolled in school, compared with 42% of all young adults ages 18 to 24. And according to results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Latinos who are in middle school have significant gap in reading and mathematics achievement with their non-Hispanic white and Asian student counterparts.5

When asked why Latinos on average do not do as well as other students in school, more respondents in the Pew Hispanic Center survey blame poor parenting and poor English skills than blame poor teachers. The explanation that Latino students don’t work as hard as other students is cited by the fewest survey respondents; fewer than four-in-ten (38%) see that as a major reason for the achievement gap.

This report is based on a bilingual telephone survey of a nationally representative sample of 2,012 Hispanics ages 16 and older, with an oversample of 1,240 young Hispanics ages 16 to 25. Interviews were conducted from Aug. 5 to Sept. 16, 2009. The margin of error for the complete sample of Hispanics is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The margin of error for respondents ages 16 to 25 is plus or minus 4.55 percentage points, and the margin of error for respondents ages 26 and older is plus or minus 4.76 percentage points.

Among the key findings:

Hispanics say a college education is important for getting ahead in life:

Latino youths report that their parents place a great emphasis on the need to go to college:

Educational aspirations of Hispanic youths do not match the level of importance Hispanics place on college, and trail those of all youth:

According to Census Bureau data, Latino youths are less likely to be enrolled in school than all youths:

Latino adults (ages 26 and older) see a mix of reasons that Latinos students do not perform as well as other groups in school:

Fewer Latino youths (ages 16 to 25) than Latino adults cite all of these reasons to explain why Hispanic students are not doing as well as other students in school:

Latino youths generally give positive evaluations of their high schools and the roles their parents play or played in their education:

Latino youths ages 16 to 25 in college, or with college experience, also rate their colleges and universities highly:

Among Latino youths who have a high school education or less and are not currently enrolled in school, the reasons they give for not continuing their education are:

About this Report

This report was prepared for the Latino Children, Families, and Schooling National Conference sponsored jointly by the Education Writers Association, Pew Hispanic Center and National Panel on Latino Children and Schooling. The conference was held on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2009 at the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C.

The 2009 National Survey of Latinos asked Hispanics ages 16 and older about their educational goals, experiences with high schools and colleges, and their opinions about educational institutions. The survey was conducted from Aug. 5 through Sept. 16, 2009, among a randomly selected, nationally representative sample of 2,012 Hispanics ages 16 and older, with an oversample of 1,240 Hispanics ages 16 to 25. The survey was conducted in both English and Spanish. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The margin of error for respondents ages 16 to 25 is plus or minus 4.55 percentage points, and the margin of error for respondents ages 26 and older is plus or minus 4.76 percentage points.

A Note on Terminology

The terms “Latino” and “Hispanic” are used interchangeably in this report, as are the terms “foreign born” and “immigrant.”

“Foreign born” refers to people born outside of the United States, Puerto Rico or other U.S. territories to parents neither of whom was a U.S. citizen.

“Native born” refers to people who are U.S. citizens at birth, including those born in the United States, Puerto Rico or other U.S. territories and those born abroad to parents at least one of whom was a U.S. citizen.

  1. In this report, the terms “young adults” and “youths” are used to describe those who are ages 16 to 25 unless otherwise indicated.
  2. For more background see the Pew Hispanic Center report “The Changing Pathways of Hispanic Youths into Adulthood” by Richard Fry, 2009.
  3. For more background on the general U.S. young adult population ages 18 to 25, see the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press report “How Young People View Their Lives, Futures and Politics: A Portrait of Generation Next” (2007).
  4. Fry (2009) defines foreign-born Latinos as Latinos born in another country, in the outlying U.S. territories, or on the island of Puerto Rico. In this report, only Hispanics born in another country are classified as foreign born; Hispanics born on the island of Puerto Rico or in outlying U.S. territories are classified as native born. However the gap in motherhood between foreign-born and native-born Latinos is not sensitive to the nativity classification of Hispanics born in Puerto Rico.
  5. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2005 among eighth-graders, a smaller share of Hispanic students (15%) than non-Hispanic white (39%) or Asian/Pacific Islander (40%) students scored at or above proficient on the reading assessment of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). On the 2005 mathematics assessment of the NAEP, among eighth-graders, a smaller percentage of Hispanic (13%) students than non-Hispanic white (39%) or Asian/Pacific Islander (47%) students scored at or above proficient (Kewal Ramani, Gilbertson, Fox and Provasnik, 2007).