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Multiple Origins, Uncertain Destinies: Hispanics and the American Future
By 2030, 25 percent of U.S. residents will be of retirement age or older, but Hispanics are a youthful population. In 2000, their median age was just 27, compared with 39 for non-Hispanic whites. Furthermore, today the median age of the Hispanic second generation, the nation’s future workers, is just over 12. Rising numbers of Hispanic young people will slow the nation’s overall population aging and can partially offset the growing burden of dependency produced by an aging majority. But their success in doing so depends on the level of their earnings, which in turn depends on their education and acquisition of job-related skills. Currently, Hispanics’ representation among highly skilled U.S. workers is below the national average.
Perhaps the most profound risk facing Hispanics is failure to graduate from high school, which remains unacceptably high. The share of Hispanic high school students 16 to 19 years old who failed to graduate fell only marginally during the 1990s, from 22 to 21 percent. Foreign-born Hispanic youths 16 to 19 years old are significantly more likely than native-born students to drop out of high school—34 compared with 14 percent in 2000—but being foreign born is not the main reason that they fail to graduate. Many immigrant students who drop out are recent arrivals who were already behind in school before arriving in the United States. In addition, in the urban schools that many Hispanics attend, low graduation rates are typical. Fully 40 percent of Hispanic students attend high schools that serve large numbers of low-income minority students and graduate less than 60 percent of entering freshmen.
Hispanic college enrollment is on the rise, but still lags well behind that of whites. In 2000 Hispanics accounted for 11 percent of high school graduates, but only 7 percent of students enrolled in 4-year institutions and 14 percent of enrollees in 2-year schools. Hispanic students are more likely than whites to attend 2-year colleges, which decreases the likelihood that they will complete a bachelor’s degree. As a result, the Hispanic-white college gap is increasing, despite the fact that Hispanic college enrollment is on the rise.
Hispanic students who fail to master English before leaving school incur considerable costs. English proficiency is mandatory for success in the labor market and is vitally important for navigating health care systems and for meaningful civic engagement. How to ensure proficiency in En-